Hey everyone, ’tis the season to be jolly! And when I say jolly, I mean ... drunk. right? Let’s not be squeamish: for most of the UK population, this is pretty much routine logic. Festivity means celebration, celebration means having a drink, and that inevitably equals inebriation, to a greater or lesser extent.
Being wrong about a subject as massive as wine is as inevitable as selling more claret at Christmas. Even the trade’s most well-worn clichés celebrate wrongness. You know the ones: I haven’t confused Bordeaux for Burgundy since lunch; I hate Chardonnay but I love Chablis. Oh how we laughed.
In the early 1990s red kites were reintroduced to the Chiltern Hills, having being hunted to extinction in the late 19th century. Now they’re established, conservationists advise residents not to feed them – they want the numbers of birds to be in equilibrium with their natural food source.
Everyone’s got a story about working with the boss from hell. The manager who barks insults at the team whenever anything goes wrong – not the most helpful or constructive method of problem solving – or the maverick injecting his personality into the business, who turns out to be more sociopath than innovative thinker.
What can go wrong?’ asked the headline in The Sun just before the first England match – as the newspaper sent free copies of its appallingly jingoistic This Is Our England special edition to 22 million homes. What could go wrong? Well, we could lose our first two matches, that’s what.
Beer has been given many affectionate nicknames over the years – liquid courage, daddy’s medicine, proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy, and countless others. But “yeast excrement” was a new one on me. That is how Alex Barlow, training director at the Beer academy, described the tipple to 10 MPs at a masterclass he hosted at the red lion opposite the houses of Parliament this week.
When I worked at Majestic, a rumour circulated that a plucky manager once led a strike by standing on the roof of the Shepherd’s Bush store and shouting slogans through a loudhailer. Apparently, that story is still going – and someone recently told me they’d heard the protagonist was me.
There’s been a lot of soul searching about the purpose of Bordeaux en primeur recently. Twitter has been bedevilled with chin-stroking platitudes from merchants and bitchy one-upmanship between wine writers. Debate has raged and disagreement is rife – though miraculously, the world has somehow managed to keep turning.
Yet again consumer complaints have led to a beer brand being required to change its ads because the industry-funded Advertising Standards Authority has judged them to be misleading. The latest TV ads for Kronenbourg challenge the consumer to “find a better tasting French beer” – yet it is brewed in Manchester.
In 2007, a voluntary agreement was made between the government and the drinks industry to ensure that 80% of all alcohol packaging in the UK would carry a warning label by December 2013. Consisting of information about units, consumption guidelines and risks to health, it’s part of a wider effort to increase awareness about responsible drinking.
Portugal, our oldest trading partner, has everything a holiday-maker could want - beautiful countryside, massive empty golden beaches, Moorish castles and an astonishing seafaring legacy. Yet the country is in a mess. During a recent visit I started wondering what comparisons can be drawn between the UK and our former close ally.
Indulge me for a moment. So, our private plane touched down at the luxurious estate of one of Argentina’s richest families. That night, while their team of chefs prepared a sumptuous supper, I was invited to take my pick from a cellar stacked full of first growths and deluxe Champagnes.
What’s the point of wine? If you’re Catholic wine is for communion but for some Muslims it’s for infidels. For collectors wine is self-fulfilment, but for alcoholics it’s self-destruction. For some, wine is for quiet contemplation, for others it’s for spraying over people in nightclubs to show you’re classy.
It is hard not to imagine yourself as a film star when you enter BAFTA’s plush headquarters in London’s Piccadilly and tread the same carpet such distinguished thespians as Marlon Brando, Daniel Day-Lewis and Helen Mirren have previously graced. A place that celebrates the finest achievements in acting is a fitting setting for the Wine & Spirit Trade Association’s annual conference.
“A vineyard planted at the gates of hell”, doesn’t sound like the most promising source of fine wine. You’d expect it to make a pruney, full-bodied red or a fiery fortified at best. But the 1.4 hectares of field-blended Semillon Blanc, Semillon Gris, Muscat and Palomino that grower Dirk Brand cultivates on his wheat and rooibos tea farm near Elands Bay on South Africa’s West Coast produces one of the Cape’s most refined and minerally whites instead.
Welcome! Bienvenidos! Thobela! Using a modern day riff on Joel Grey’s famous song in Cabaret, The Beautiful South held its first, keenly-awaited tasting in London last week. If you’ve not heard of the initiative, it is a genuinely groundbreaking collaboration between three Southern Hemisphere countries: Argentina, Chile and South Africa, two of whom are historic enemies.
“What’s wrong with France?” asked the distinguished journalist Christine Ockrent in a recent think piece in Prospect. Her analysis, which is worth reading in full, begins at the top. Président François Hollande, whose popularity has trawled unprecedented lows in opinion polls, lacks the “grandeur, energy and panache” that the French expect from their leader. But his problems are part of a deeper malaise. France, argues Ockrent, has to face reality. Like its political class, it is frequently arrogant, averse to change and incurious about the outside world.
I’m not sure if Peter Lehmann and Tim Hamilton Russell ever met, but I like to think they would have got on, despite their very different personalities. One was a slightly gruff, chain-smoking winemaker who never went to university, the other an urbane, Oxford-educated advertising executive. What they had in common – and would, I hope, have established a bond between them – was a love of wine and an ability to take risks, flouting rules if necessary.
If proof of the effectiveness among brewing lobbyists were ever needed, it was on full view at the 20th annual dinner of the All Parliamentary Beer Group in Westminster last week. Senior MPs rubbed shoulders with brewers in a resplendent display of back-slapping over the successful abolishment of the beer duty escalator.
Traitor or patriot? Whistleblower or scoundrel? Depending on your point of view, Edward Snowden, the man behind the recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance techniques, is either a hero or a villain. Whatever you think of the guy – not least the fact that he has disclosed the contents of top-secret documents – you have to admire his courage. “I do not expect to see home again,” he has admitted from his hotel room in Hong Kong.
How conservative is the wine busisness? Less than it once was is the obvious answer, at least in the UK. When I started writing about the subject in the mid-1980s, a pinstriped suit and a tie were de rigueur at tastings, and that was just for the women. The New World was all but ignored – it was famously covered in a morning at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust – and innovation was frowned upon. It was a world of claret, Burgundy, port, sherry, Rioja, Hock and Moselle.
Stroll through the vineyards at Il Paradiso di Frassina in Montalcino and the sound of Mozart soothes your ears. If you like Beethoven, Bach or Boulez, not to mention Miles Davis, Madonna or Motörhead, you will be disappointed. Musical variety is not the point here. The Sangiovese vines are given a permanent aural diet of Mozart, pumped through 58 strategically sited speakers, and nothing else.