Shop in haste, repent at leisure

A while ago (seven years! Where does the time go?) I wrote something on this blog about a pretty humble wine from the southern Rhone which I’d snaffled en primeur for a handful of loose change a few years earlier and was enjoying drinking at the time. I used the opportunity to promote the idea of buying reasonably cheap wine before it was ready to drink, forgetting about it for a while and then some time later enjoying “a wine that a) didn’t cost very much, and b) you paid for so long ago that it now basically feels free”. And it is a recommendation that I myself embraced with great and now slightly regrettable enthusiasm.

In 2014 Victoria Moore wrote an article in the Telegraph suggesting “that 96% of all bottles are drunk within 24 hours of being bought”. That same year Jancis Robinson wrote that “according to some estimates 90% of all wine bought in the US is consumed within 24 hours”. I can’t find any particularly recent survey results on this – in my more nostalgic moments I yearn to return to a time when pollsters had nothing better to do than to ask about people’s wine-buying habits, back in the days before someone lit a giant match under the leaking butane canister that turned out to be British politics – but we can probably assume that it remains broadly true. Most people get a couple of bottles of wine with their weekly shop, probably taking advantage of a special offer, and drink them within days; if they’re going to a friend’s house they might pick something up on the way there, perhaps with some nice Australian indigenous fauna on the label, and consume it within hours. Put the two situations together and the average bottle is drunk within a day or two of purchase.

These days I rarely drink wine that I bought less than five years ago.

Somewhere along the line it all got a little out of hand. The key problem is that I keep buying wine in slightly greater quantities than I actually consume it. When stocks at home dwindle and I go online – where I do the majority of my wine shopping, for my sins – to replenish them, I’ll spend a couple of hours putting a case together and then realise that I already own loads of stuff, lurking in this or that merchant’s storage facility, that should probably be drunk soon and get some of that delivered instead. I didn’t entirely stick to my own advice, though, because some of it wasn’t even that cheap. Here’s a delivery from a few months ago (it’s not all mine, to be fair, but most of it is). Look at the state of it. There’s some Barolo there, and wine so posh it came in a case made of wood.

I still enjoy drinking wine, and talking, thinking, reading and writing about it, but there is now a significant hurdle to me being able to write an actually useful blog (in addition to laziness, obviously). Given a change in my work patterns a few years ago that made attending trade tastings harder (I work more daytimes, and generally from home) and a change in viral patterns a few months ago that has made putting them on largely impossible, I can only write about the wine I’m drinking at home, which quite often is now only available to readers with bulging wallets and/or access to a functioning time machine.

Plus, any old fool can buy Barolo from a highly-rated producer and have a nice time, but one of wine’s pleasures is truffling out cut-price excellence and drinking exuberant young wine at its fruitiest, and it’s one I’m not enjoying enough. The solution I suppose is to spend a lot less on wine, and then wait five or six years. One thing’s for sure, though: I’m in no danger of going thirsty.

The farmyard fraud

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So here I am, hauling myself out of semi-retirement because someone has tried to sell me wine in a way I find so infuriating and deceitful that I simply must publicly rant about it.

A letter dropped through my door the other day from Laithwaites, offering me £70 off a case of wine (and some free crystal wine glasses). Here are some quotes from the accompanying letter:

“Enjoy boutique quality wine – for much less than you’d expect! Did you know Laithwaite’s has an ‘inner circle’ of wine lovers who are regularly rewarded with lower prices simply for helping smaller wineries compete with ‘the big boys’?

The letter also features “six rules for enjoying great wine”. Rule number three is “think small: whenever possible, seek out wine from small, family-run vineyards”. Rule five is “Be an explorer: sometimes, the most exciting wines can be found off the beaten path”.

An accompanying leaflet introduces me to their selection of “boutique wines at everyday prices”. These “exciting wines” from “off the beaten path” include a Rioja, an Australian shiraz, a pinot grigio and a sauvignon blanc. So let’s take a look at these “smaller wineries”, shall we?

  • The sauvignon blanc is made by Viña Tarapacá, part of the VSPT Wine Group, who in 2016 produced 15.24 million cases, or nearly 183 million bottles, of wine.
  • The malbec is made by Andean Vineyards, which exports to over 50 countries and is owned by Grupo Peñaflor, itself owned by DLJ Merchant Banking Partners L.P. They are the world’s biggest producer of malbec, and export wine worth $180m a year.
  • The Rioja is made by Bodegas Muriel. I can’t find actual statistics, but in an interview earlier this year Javier Murua of Bodegas Muriel estimated their annual production at “about one million cases a year between all our brands”, making them very much the baby of this bunch. Still, they make Sainsbury’s own-brand Rioja Crianza, a Gran Riserva for Asda and three wines for Morrisons, the most expensive being the Duke Big Red at £6.75. It is, to be fair, owned by the same family that started it in 1926. Laithwaite’s selection also includes Lime Leaf Verdejo, which is made by Real Compañia De Vinos, a subsidiary of Bodegas Muriel.
  • The Australian shiraz is made by Idyll Wine Co, which according to its local newpaper, the Geelong Advertiser, produces 20 million bottles of wine a year. Their owners went into receivership in 2015 and they were saved by the Costa Group, one of Australia’s largest farming companies. The Chilean malbec is made by Luis Felipe Edwards, annual production 2.5 million cases.

And so it goes on. I’m not criticising these wines. I’ve never tried any of them, and certainly am not going to spend £70 rewarding this kind of fraudulent marketing to do so. Some or all of them might be excellent. This is not about taste or value, it is about honesty.

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The wine industry likes to sell a fiction that all wine is made by a genial, sun-wizened old chap in a beret, who hauls in the harvest each year with the help of his frolicking grandchildren and his trusty donkey Emile. Laithwaite’s aren’t alone in this. But this really is another level.

To suggest to a customer that a wine comes from a “smaller winery” that needs their help to “compete with the big boys”, and that by buying it they will have successfully “sought out wine from small, family-run vineyards” when in fact it comes from the world’s biggest producer of malbec, or a machine that churns out Hungarian sauvignon at the rate of 5.8 bottles per second, day and night, 365 days a year, is appallingly and horribly dishonest. It is pure shitbaggery of the most unnecessary and unjustifiable sort, and Laithwaite’s should be embarrassed to be responsible for it.

Number six on their short list of “rules for enjoying great wine”? “Find a guide you can trust: Tony Laithwaite has spent the last 50 years roaming the world’s vineyards, cultivating relationships with small-estate winemakers.”

Now he spends his time conning the gullible with pure, vinified bullshit. Nice one, Tony.

Vertical: Rex Pickett book review

20170524_123410-01So this is a book by someone who’s previously written a successful wine-related road-trip male-bonding novel but for several years failed to follow it up with anything else, about someone who’s previously written a successful wine-related road-trip male-bonding novel but for several years failed to follow it up with anything else. “Everything – and I mean almost everything – in Vertical is a fictionalised version of reality,” the real-life author, Rex Pickett, says of the story. Sometimes it’s hard to know where reality ends and fiction begins, with characters existing in triplicate in different states of made-upness. For example, Pickett has a real-life friend called Roy, who inspired the character Jack, friend of the fictional author Miles Raymond, who in turn inspired the character Jake, star of Raymond’s successful doubly kind-of-fictional wine-related road-trip male-bonding novel.

There is something inherently entertaining about this set-up, the reader forced to guess which of the events in the book are pure fiction, which are semi-fictionalised real events, and which are inherently factual. And it’s a readable story, full of entertaining and unexpected diversions. Indeed it’s easy to imagine it, like Sideways, being turned into a(nother) popular wine-related road-trip buddy movie (though in the final third Jack clears off and the story transforms into something totally different). So there’s that.

It’s also full of characters who sit somewhere close to the unpleasant tip of the asshole scale. None of the key players, least of all Raymond, are at all endearing. In addition to Jack, familiar from Sideways and no less carnally obsessed for the passage of an extra few years, the cast includes Raymond’s mother, a racist antisemite, his mother’s sulky and unreliable carer, Raymond himself, who has gone from being a relatably neurotic down-at-heel wannabe author to being a full-of-himself once-upon-a-time runaway success, and the entirety of womankind, who in this version of reality are puzzlingly predisposed to desperately flinging themselves open-legged at vaguely semi-successful authors. So much so that Raymond ends book signings with “piles of business cards and hotel room keys”, thrust at him by what Jack refers to as “wine whores”.

At one point Raymond gets onto a bus and sits next to a journalist, “an attractive woman in her mid-to-late thirties, with long straight auburn hair and an intelligent face”. They start talking. A page later, he reveals that he is none other than Miles Raymond, semi-successful one-time author. Three pages later, an hour or so after they met, they are “kissing like teenagers”; that night there is “levitational” sex. This is Raymond’s life (whether this is Pickett’s life I don’t know: he has said that this female character is based on a real-life reporter, but that in real life their relationship involved nothing more levitational than conversation). The narrator’s appearance is never really described, leaving nothing to replace the inevitable mental images of Paul Giamatti, the brilliant actor who played the role in the film of Sideways but makes for an unlikely sex god.

When not distracted by levitational sex, Raymond’s world is one of free nights in vineyard B&Bs full of free bottles of expensive wine. “OK, so I admit I told them a little white lie and said there was going to be a sequel and it was coming to their region,” he says. Of course, he doesn’t (that we know) ever write the sequel, but then he doesn’t need to, because he’s fictional and Pickett did. The book ends with a list of all the wineries, hotels and restaurants featured in the book, as if by way of payback for the author’s life of excessive freebies. It’s also riddled with repeated, unnecessary and grating references to real-life brands – in the sentence “I lifted the Riedel sommelier’s glass to my lips” two words leap out for being totally unnecessary – with one in particular popping up repeatedly. “My iPhone rang”; “my new iPhone jangled on the nightstand”; “Bless you, Steve Jobs! Thank God for the iPhone.” There are more. If the author hasn’t been paid for them – and Apple aren’t exactly so desperate for publicity they need to pay semi-succesful one-time authors for mentions – it’s hard to understand his motivation here.

There are also, strangely for a newly-edited reprint of a book first published in 2011, a few editing errors. Most are relatively easy to forgive: the incorrect use of whom, using the word immure (verb: to enclose or confine (someone) against their will) instead of inure (verb: to accustom (someone) to something), but there’s also a baffling sequence in which Jack “shambled off. I was positive he was hoping he would find a dark bar he could tuck into”. Miles then takes his mother, wheelchair-bound after a serious stroke, out of the car and, perhaps 60 real-life seconds later, Jack is magically back again, “sucking on his second beer” and contributing to the conversation as if he never left.

And then there’s the writing, with the author displaying a love of obscure words that has prompted the publisher to appendix a dictionary to assist readers with the most befuddling stuff. But there’s a difference between verbosity and quality, and sometimes Pickett tips into full-blown, downright dolcelatte-level cheese. “The waning afternoon sun slanted through the trees and painted a filigree of gold light over the unblemished landscape,” he writes. “We all found our psyches readjusted with our emergence into this preternatural world. We had reached nirvana, our own collective perception of Shangri-la.” By the end of the paragraph my idea of nirvana felt a long way away.

So there we are. Maybe give it a go if you read and enjoyed Sideways (I saw the film but missed the novel). It’s sometimes baffling, sometimes unappealing, occasionally downright offensive, but [inevitable crowbarring of vague political reference alert] a lot of people don’t seem to be put off by any of that. This one’s for them.

And then this happened

Royal Free hospital

So a couple of months ago I had a minor operation on my nose. There was something up there that wasn’t going away, and given that my sister had had a similar experience a while ago and that her something ended up being a rare, aggressive and extremely nasty lymphoma, I decided to have it removed and checked out. It was a simple affair, requiring general anaesthetic but just a brief trip to hospital, in and out in a single day. I was waved away a few hours after my arrival, clutching a variety of nose drops and some simple painkillers. And for a few days life was fine. The doctor called to reassure me that the biopsy had not revealed anything scary. The something had gone, to be replaced by a constantly regenerating assortment of gunk, and though I didn’t exactly feel wonderful, the painkillers were only occasionally required.

A week later I came down with something viral-seeming. I went to bed weirdly early and slept for 12 hours. The following day I felt similarly poorly. The day after that I felt a little better, and for the first time since the operation I ventured out of the house, to a couple of art galleries with my mother. That night, though, I took a turn for the worse. I started vomiting, and continued to do so on and off for four days. At first I thought it was food poisoning, the result of a bowl of noodle soup on that outing with my mum. When it continued beyond 24 hours I thought it was probably norovirus, the dreaded winter vomiting bug we read so much about at this time of year. The official advice for those affected is to avoid hospital and doctors’ surgeries, to just get through it. Within three or four days it should be over. For the duration I ate little, and what I did eat didn’t hang around. I drank water, most of which came back up as well. After three days and four nights the vomiting stopped, but I continued to feel awful. Still trying to avoid non-infected humans I booked in a telephone consultation with my GP, who quizzed me about my symptoms. Had I been pooing, she asked? Well yes, profusely for a while, but not for a day or so. Could I come in to collect a prescription? Well yes, I suppose so. And then, almost as an afterthought, had I been weeing? Well, now you mention it, not so much. I think you’d better pop in, she said.

I popped in, and – having been saving up for a couple of hours – provided a urine sample. She didn’t like it much, and told me to report to a hospital for a blood test. So I went to my local A&E, who sent me up to a different department, who ignored me for a couple of hours and then took a sample, and told me to wait for a further hour or two for the results.

A while later a doctor came and called me into her office. The blood results come in in three parts, she said. Two of them were in, and didn’t show anything conclusive. The third should land any minute. As she spoke she repeatedly refreshed her screen and, on cue, they dropped. So did her jaw. She told me she’d be back in a minute, and left the room. When she returned, she had a consultant in tow. My kidneys were not working. eGFR, the blood reading that attempts to estimate kidney function and should be somewhere between 90 and 100, sat at four. Creatinine, another indicator of healthy kidney function, should sit somewhere between 60 and 110. My reading was over 1,200.

Later I was told that, with my body weakened by nasal surgery, I had suffered a rare but not unheard-of reaction to ibuprofen, one of the pain-killers I’d been given as I left hospital. Then, in pain because of the violent vomiting that accompanied by kidney failure and made my chest ache and blood haemorrhage around my eyes, I’d taken more ibuprofen. In the 10 days that followed my nose surgery I’d taken a total of nine ibuprofen tablets – the maximum dose was four a day – but apparently it had been enough. Thanks to some confusing biopsy results they’re no longer sure about what caused it, but just to be safe I am never to take ibuprofen again.

I was parked in a corner of the ward, with a saline drip. A group of doctors from intensive care came to see me, and spoke with a forced geniality I didn’t find entirely reassuring. I wasn’t going anywhere any time soon, unless it was into their care. I spent that night on the random ward I had first been sent to, which wasn’t supposed to offer residential care, but in most British hospitals these days there are beds anywhere that’ll fit them. I spent it getting regularly woken by the woman in the bay next to mine, who spoke not a word of English but appeared extremely grumpy and also, perhaps not coincidentally, in a fair amount of pain.

By lunchtime the following day I was still on a drip, and feeling worse than ever. But there was news: this hospital didn’t have a specialist serious renal fuck-up unit, but a space had come up at the one at the Royal Free, another hospital a few miles away, and I was getting it. In the late afternoon I was put in a wheelchair and taken to an ambulance – not the boxy, flashy-lighted kind, but the minibus-style, not-so-fast variety. On the way we took a detour to drop another patient off at his home, every speed bump and unexpected stoppage making me feel more nauseous than before. Finally we arrived, and I was wheeled up to my new temporary home, where I was ignored for a while, my blood pressure was taken by a nurse who didn’t know how to take a blood pressure reading, and another blood sample followed. And then I was ignored a bit more.

The late afternoon is a bad time to arrive at a new hospital ward. The day staff are starting to think about what they’re going to have for dinner, and then they disappear entirely to hand over to the night staff. Night fell without me meeting a doctor, though I was pleasingly distracted by watching a dodgy feed of Watford’s victory over Arsenal, taking place a few miles away in another corner of north London.

I have to surmise the chain of events here a little. The night staff took over from the day staff. The results of my blood tests arrived, and were placed in a stack of paperwork somewhere where they were ignored for a while. Finally, sometime around midnight, someone looked at them, and they didn’t like what they saw. They got on the phone to the on-call consultant, who told them not to hang about.

It took a few nights in hospital for me to understand how the rhythm of life there works. Action happens during the day. Maintenance happens at night. When I was admitted, the plan would have been for me to be parked in a corner of the ward overnight, ready for doctors to start actually thinking about me the following day. But the results of my blood test suggested that my continued existance the following day was not something that could be taken for granted.

A little after midnight I was whisked away from my bay of four beds and put into a private room, where two doctors worked to insert a haemodialysis line – a high-volume blood-extraction thingamy – into my groin. It was a straightforward procedure, they reassured me. Shouldn’t take long. Their first attempt, though, didn’t work. Their second attempt didn’t work either (my groin sported garish bruises for a fortnight). They tried to insert a low-volume line into my left arm, and three attempts at that failed as well. Then they moved up to my neck.

This was not a fun hour. Despite local anaesthetic, the 45 minutes of groin-bashing was uncomfortable. The five minutes of arm-jabbing was unpleasant. And then there was 20 minutes spent with a protective surgical blanket over my chest, neck and also face, my breath condensing on the plastic that covered my mouth, while they went at my neck. For a few minutes this seemed to be failing as well, and though I didn’t feel intrinsically any worse than I had at lunchtime, as the doctors cursed I was starting to feel a little concerned about what further unpleasant plot twists the evening had in store.

There were none. As I understood it – which was hardly at all – the dialysis line required the insertion of a guide wire into one of the body’s significant veins (which seemed straightforward enough), and then a tube is pushed in around the wire, which was the problematic bit. Finally, however, after a bit of forceful and desperate shoving, the doctor’s work was done. I was quickly x-rayed to check that the needle hadn’t pierced my heart or lung, and then I was hooked up to the dialysis machine.

You forget how good normal feels. By this time my kidneys had been out of action for several days. My body had swollen with the excess water that I wasn’t urinating out, and my veins were coursing with poisons and toxins that my kidneys should really have been removing for me. My arms and legs had been tingling angrily for a couple of days, and really weren’t working very well at all – walking wasn’t so straightforward, and when I was given a form to fill in after my arrival at the Royal Free I could hardly fashion a legible letter. Then you get dialysis, which involves taking blood, cleaning it up and popping it back in again, and for a while you stop feeling quite so poisoned. And comparatively speaking not quite so poisoned feels good.

Two hours later, a little after 3am, I was moved back to my bay, to spend the first of five nights with a rotating cast of extremely sick old men (one, to be fair, was quite cheerful, and not so old really). And for the remainder of that day the toxins built up again. There could be no dialysis, because it involves the use of blood thinners, and I’d had a chunk of kidney removed for testing in the afternoon, and doing those two things too close together can lead to dangerous internal bleeding. What’s more, for six hours after the biopsy I had to lie totally flat on my back, without moving. Which was all well and good until I started wretching violently. A nurse rushed in and injected me with something to stop the sickness, which had the bonus added effect of pretty much stopping me from moving anything – arms, legs, fingers, lips, eyelids – but not from hearing or thinking, leaving me pretty much locked immobile inside my body for half an hour or so.

I was scared. I felt sick, and knew I was to be denied access to the thing that made me feel better. Though the previous night had in the end been quite dramatic, I felt the drama had been caused by my being deprived of necessary medical attention for several hours, and I feared a night spent in my little corner of the ward, curtains drawn around my bed, too sick to speak, being ignored while the poisons spread.

I know I was scared, genuinely fearful. But even now I don’t know whether any of this was rational. I experienced enough on the ward to know that extremely sick people on a cocktail of medication can be guilty of some very muddled thinking. One evening the man in the bed next to me, a normally very sensible retired accountant, summoned a doctor. When the doctor arrived, he said he wanted to check that they had received his bag. What bag, asked the doctor? The one he’d brought in to the hospital earlier that day, he said. A bag full of “guns and whatnot” that he’d been given, and instructed to deliver. The doctor assured him that there were no guns on the ward, but that she’d look into it. The patient then explained that he was furious that, having done no more than his “civic duty”, he was now being detained against his will, and demanded his immediate release. The man had bruising on one foot that meant he couldn’t walk, and was on dialysis. He had been in hospital for several months. The following day I noticed a John Le Carre thriller on his dressing table, which perhaps had permeated his drug-addled subconscious.

That day brought more dialysis, and things started to improve. I never again felt as sick as I had on the Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thursday night I saw my children for the first time since Sunday, putting on a brave if not entirely convincing face and leaving my ward – where under-14s were banned – for the first time. On Friday I started to urinate profusely, a tell-tale sign that my functions were returning. By Saturday I was stronger still, walking only slightly wobble-legged around the ward, and started to feel that, if there was a Monday version of myself in another hospital waiting for a space to come up on this specialist renal screw-up unit, perhaps the Saturday version of myself should get out of his way. Late that afternoon, I went home.

That was a couple of months ago. Most of the time since then has seen a story of slow improvement, from a very low base, but I’ve been told that it will take upwards of six months for me to feel anything approaching actually healthy. The sense of gradual improvement has been broken only in the last fortnight, in which I have been semi-permanently fatigured. Still, this is a long road, and not a direct one.

So I haven’t been drinking much wine. For a while after the initial operation I lost my sense of smell and taste. For a while after the kidney failure I lost my sense of humour. Both, happily, are returning. I’ll be doing more basic wine-related posts again, I think. Humble ruminations on whatever’s in my glass at home, rather than touring round tastings or fancy dinners with esteemed winemakers, invitations to which are understandably rare given the recent lack of action on this site. Be patient with me, hopefully we can still have some fun together.

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.