Polpo: dinner on the dark side

Peter Norman in BBC2's The Restaurant Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Travelling to New Zealand (kind of)

Vines in the distance on Waihere

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

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

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

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

The ferry to Waiheke

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

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

Pyramid Valley Lion's Tooth Chardonnay 2011

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

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

Sunrise over Doubtful Sound

Mark Haisma and his magical mobile cellar door

Mark Haisma Bourgogne Rouge

Most wine is made in giant wine-making-factories and sold in giant stuff-selling factories, widely known as supermarkets. This is an inevitability and a necessity: there are simply too many people with too little time and too much thirst for any alternative method to work. People with slightly more time and perhaps slightly more money can choose slightly less industrialised retail environments in which to splash their wino-cash. But in some make-believe dream world it is possible, even in cold, rainy locations many miles from interesting winegrowing regions such as my own, to do at least a small percentage of your wine purchasing at the most extreme alternative end of the scale to those supermarkets. To meet a winemaker, to glimpse their enthusiasm, to be introduced to their products, to taste and to select, and perhaps, if so taken, to buy.

Well I live in that make-believe dream world. Mark Haisma is an unusual and gently inspirational winemaker: a genial Australian who has made his home in Burgundy, where he makes as much wine as he can from whatever grapes he can find and afford, and also a tiny bit of syrah in the northern Rhône. And every year he brings all his wine, and a few made by other people he likes, opens them up and asks anyone who’s interested to come along. If you like, you can buy some, and a few months later Mark himself (sometimes) will pop round in a van and drop them off. It’s a bit like going to visit him in Burgundy, only without the views or the fresh air or the driving.

Much wine from Burgundy is crazy expensive, and even buying direct from a cheerful Australian doesn’t make it exactly cheap: a few bottles of Mark’s top wine, the Bonnes Mares, will eventually be found in retail establishments for around £140 apiece. Fortunately his bottom wine, a humble Bourgogne Rouge, is a little more affordable – £14 when you buy it from him direct – and in 2012 he made a very delicious one indeed. Sure, I feel a bit of a fraud for turning up, tasting all his best wines and then only buying the cheapest one, but he seems happy enough about it, and it certainly works for me. His Morey St-Denis “Les Chaffots” is my favourite wine of the day, but at £39.50 a bottle it’s one for a genuinely make-believe dream world.

Mark Haisma at Vinoteca

Everyone’s talking about Burgundy prices at the moment, as a two-week-long festival of major en primeur tastings in London comes to an end. Big-time Burg buyers are in a state of high dudgeon, because they keep rocketing upwards (the prices, not the buyers themselves). The problem is that the last few vintages have all been troublesome, leading to less wine being made and forcing producers to raise prices to cover their fixed costs. Meanwhile more and more people want to drink the stuff, leading producers and retailers to raise prices even more than they would anyway have had to. Most drinkers will never care or even hear about spikes in en primeur pricing, and my only real worry is that the high-quality, good-value wines of the Rhône will start to get silly next, but this year I have suffered myself: Mark’s Bourgogne Rouge has gone up by £2 a bottle since I last bought some, a couple of years ago. But for all the fury and the fights over £500-a-bottle allocation-only scraps from Rousseau, De Vogüé and the like, there is still value in Burgundy: I opened a bottle of Mark’s 2010 Bourgogne Rouge over the weekend, purely for research purposes you understand, and it was in sparkling, sensuous form, as good a bottle of pinot noir as £12 could ever get you.

There are other ways to meet winemakers in London – some small shops host tastings, and there are frequent trade events for those who work in the world of wine, or can sneak in on the pretext of occasionally writing an amateurish blog. I’d recommend taking as many of these chances as you can, but what sets Mark’s little event apart is that everyone is welcome – there are no tickets or guest lists or entry requirements – and nobody is expected to buy. Indeed, on the day you’re actively discouraged from buying: Mark is far too busy pouring and chatting to take orders.

I just wonder how many other small-scale winemakers could sell their wines like this, direct to the consumer. By cutting out importers and retailers the customers could pay less and the producers could still make more, all while building relationships and loyalty with the drinkers who turn up. The advantages seem so overwhelming it’s a surprise more of them don’t try it: every winemaker knows the benefits of running a cellar door, offering tastings and selling direct to people who turn up at your winery, but if those people can’t or won’t come to you, there’s no reason why you can’t go to them.

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, drinks21.com, 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).