How to talk about wine, without sounding like a wanker

I grew up watching the peerless Jilly Goolden inhaling glasses of wine and gesticulating about how she could smell old leather watchstraps, romps in sun-ripened hay bales and elderflower-draped forests; so naturally, that’s just how I thought most people chatted about wine.

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That was until I found myself working in wine, specifically writing about it for M&S, and I quickly realised how much of a complete pillock you sound if you fall into the common traps of wine wanker chat.

Here’s a starter for ten: don’t use industry words like ‘mouthfeel’ or describe a wine as ‘turgid’ and never give it human characteristics like ‘confident’, ‘brave’ or ‘sexy’ – not only do they sound inherently stupid, they say bugger all about what the wine actually tastes like. I’ve done all of these before and now tread that precarious journalistic line between informative and douchey on a daily basis.

Somebody who drinks wine pretentiously in the company of others to show off their knowledge and try to make other people feel inferior.”
“It was really embarrassing seeing Declan complain about all the wines we drank just to get attention. What a wine wanker!”

Most people can say they understand a bit about wine these days and have an inkling of what they’re buying. You tell people you’re stoking the fires for a BBQ and they’ll crack out a full-bodied red from the safe regions of Rioja or an Argentinian malbec. Basically, it boils down to three things: what does it taste like, what can I eat it with and (if you’re a connoisseur of the supermarket wine aisles) is it in the gifting appropriate price bracket of £10-18.

So, how do you talk about an event and tell people about wine they haven’t drunk and food they haven’t eaten if you can’t rely on a bit of Brontë-esque frippery in your writing?

But there I was a month or so ago, elbow-to-elbow at the Andaz hotel for the Bacchus on a Knife Edge (no, I still don’t know what was on-edge about it) with a roomful of writers and bloggers doing just that.

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After the crab and cucumber canapés and delicate rounds of buttery cod fishcakes with Scandi remoulade from Italian-Norwegian duo Nordish, the wine chat began in earnest.

And I was right in the thick of it, crossing from Brontë to bullshit in an instant as I compared the canapés matched to a salt-laced, citrus-spiked Petit Chablis as “like breathing in the seashore in winter.”

It got worse. There followed a starter from Pickled Plates of cod with roasted baby radish salad and tempura samphire paired with a La Boissonneause chablis. I distinctly remember describing it as “tasting like an English garden smells. It tastes green: like the first slice of spring.” What. A. Prat.

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There are far more interesting things to talk about when it comes to La Boissonneause, like how it comes from one of Chablis’ first organic and biodynamic vineyards; or how they mix nettles, sage and lavender with manure from their on-site, free-range cows and, come Equinox, bury the brew in the vineyard in the cow’s horns to be re-discovered the following Equinox and homeopathically applied to the vines.

Now, in my defense, if you’re going to wax lyrical about a wine, it might as well be a chablis. It’s the kind of beautifully complex white that comes with its own hazy semantic field of delicious words swimming around it. Chablis is aniseed, fennel, lemon and sherbet. It’s lime and salt and oysters. It’s earthy and buttery and mineral. It is, in short, worthy of pratting about over.

And even its own producers agree. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for blood to be spilled over terroir territory wars, or for famous chablis-producing families to marry off their kids to improve their grape stocks.

So I could, in theory, take you all the way to wanker town, where we talk about crisp whites shivering with freshness like a milky-white virgin in a dew-slicked meadow. Where we describe chablis as a sibilant sylph of a wine, lisping lemony with the siren call of the French coastline. But that probably wouldn’t tell you much about the wine we drank.

So let’s leave the clay and the chalky soil and the sweep of the shore and talk instead about the room in London near Liverpool Street station, where, against the bottle-lined walls, people sat and ate and drank. We could talk about how we all argued over whether or not the Japanese rice that the soy and mirin-doused pork steaks came on was meant to be served as soft and slippery as rice pudding comes in boarding school – amniotic and squelching and slopped out by lunch matrons with arms like mutton: russet-veined and marble muscled…but then we’d be heading back to wanker town.

So let’s talk about the wine that came after A Little Lusciousness‘s punchy pork instead, which was a slurp into the big boys of the region:

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“Cru” is used to indicate a named and legally defined vineyard, which grows on a reputed terroir; by extension of good quality.  The term cru is used within classifications of French wine in Bordeaux and Burgundy, as others have indicated in their answers.

The terms “Premier Cru”, “Grand Cru” are translated as “First Growth”, and “Great Growth”. These designate levels of presumed quality that are variously defined in different wine regions.”

So, I suppose the salient point you’re after is why should you care about chablis. Well, apart from being a universally crowd-pleasing white with the sort of gravitas that means it’s never out of place at a party or as a present, it’s also about to hit a dry patch.

2016 has been, so far, an annus horribilis for the region. Following hail and floods in May, there’s going to be around 50% less chablis produced than expected this year. So, if you’ve got nothing else from this, the main take away is: it’s good, get some now. Cheers!

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Here Comes the Summer: Gordon’s Gin With a Spot of Elderflower

It’s official, you can have a Pimms – the sun is out AND it has stayed out for most of the bank holiday. I’ll be personally sloshing some of Gordon’s with a Spot of Elderflower into my gin mug (cause you can’t get enough into a glass, obviously). Ever since I tried it at the launch a few weeks ago, I’ve been waiting for the moment to crack into a bottle of this Summer-ready gin.

The following was written in the stunned hours following the revelation that my taste buds are designated as weird…or ‘super’ if you want to be picky. Crack out the cocktail glasses and enjoy!

Worship Street Whistling Shop, 63 Worship Street, London EC2A 2DU

This just in. Apparently I’m a super-taster, which is either very good or very bad news for me, dependent on whether it’s desirable to be extremely sensitive to the five basic tastes and have an inbuilt sensitivity to the bitter and sweet ends of the flavour spectrum.

According to the test results I should be averse to sour food, neat cocktails and strong liquors like whiskey and gin. Wrong, actually, I love them, which is lucky really as I found out all of this while I was sampling the latest offering from gin giants Gordon’s: the With a Spot of Elderflower addition to their range.

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Within the dark and salubrious confines of Worship Street Whistling Shop, somewhere round the back of Liverpool Street station, cocktail maestro Tom Aske was shaking up summery, pastel-hued drinks designed to be slurped under the temperamental British sun – all containing Gordon’s With a Spot of Elderflower.

I like floral-based gins, one of my favourite summer gin glugs involves Bloom Gin, but I could easily be persuaded to make With a Spot of Elderflower my go-to gin for the coming months. Unlike some flavour ‘hint’ concoctions, Gordon’s comes in waves.

It’s unspeakably delicate, and instead of smacking you around the face with an elderflower encrusted branch, the vague but distinctive floral notes sweep across your tongue, lingering just long enough to leave an impact. Incidentally, if you’re looking for a gin that goes exceptionally well with strawberries or cucumber instead of the tang of lemon or lime in your tonic, this one’s a winner.

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As well as the traditional G&T tasting and cocktail mixing, Gordon’s had invited legendary master distiller Tom Nichol and historian Joanne McKerchar – who both looked right at home tucked into the Whistling Shop’s leather and tapestry gentleman’s study chairs – to talk us through Gordon’s through the ages and the process that creates one of Britain’s best-loved gins.

My history with Gordon’s goes all the way back to some of my first tastes of alcohol with the stolen sips from my mum’s gin and tonic glass. She was always partial to the charms of a small glass of Gordon’s diluted with lots of fizzing tonic and mountains of ice, not exactly a classic example of gin’s reputation as the infamous ‘mother’s ruin.’ But while gin and I might go back a while, Gordon’s goes back far further than I ever knew.

The first brand of Gordon’s London Dry Gin was brewed back in 1769 in Southwark; they released fashionable pre-mixed cocktail shakers in the 1920s and were making flavoured gins years ago. Eat your heart out all those modern gin brands that have popped up over east and south London in the past year as, while producers like Hoxton Gin might have recently released a grapefruit version that’s been marketed as ‘the most distinctive gin in the world,’ Gordon’s did it with their ginger and their orange gins first.

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Also in attendance were the Robin Collective, mad scientists and protégés of the experimental jelly genius’ Bompas & Parr. Sitting into a cramped room with them soon turned from a simple tasting into a sensory exploration where gin wasn’t just sipped, it was smoked, breathed in, chewed and swigged against a background of classical and jarring music.

They even had us stroking scratchy or soft surfaces while we downed spherified balls of gelatinous gin, which exploded and flooded our mouths with a burst of peppery Gordon’s Gin. I’m always a bit sceptical when it comes to these experiments, which inevitably come coupled with the power of suggestion.

The thing is, when someone tells you that what you’re tasting will be sweeter when you’re touching a piece of fur or being lulled by an orchestra of violins your brain, rather than your taste buds, tends to agree. The super-taster test, on the other hand, was genuinely fascinating.

We were all given a tiny clear pouch containing a tiny square of white paper, which was, we found out afterwards coating in a small amount of

 6-n-propylthiouracil. Most people can’t detect the chemical, but to super-tasters it tastes like you’ve swigged from a bottle of nail varnish remover, or at least it did to me and I had to spit the paper out within 30 seconds of it touching my tongue. The Robin Collective informed us that super-tasters have a higher concentration of taste buds than most people, meaning we taste flavours with more intensity and tend to lean towards sweeter flavours. I love sweets as much as the next person…well, more clearly and it was quite nice to be offered a handy excuse for my incurable cravings for sugar, but one thing I will never agree with is the assertion that I don’t enjoy the taste of a dirty gin martini.

“Whilst supertasters often think that they are superheroes, they are in fact typically fussy eaters, not enjoying flavours which are too bitter or sweet such as grapefruit or coffee, preferring long cocktails with a large mixer. Whereas, mild tasters enjoy extreme tastes from sweet to sour as well as red meat and fatty food.” Brandy from The Robin Collective

The super-taster profile (as well as putting paid to any sense of smugness me and my over-zealous taste buds might have felt) told me that every sip of that bitter, potent liver killer that’s sour with onions or salty with olives should be abhorrent to my uber-sensitive sense of taste, but all I know is that when that first sip hits my lips I just taste one thing, and it’s delicious.

Although, after discovering it, I could definitely be persuaded to swap out the regular gin for the sweet and floral touches of Gordon’s With a Spot of Elderflower to appease my picky palate.

Gordon’s Spot of Elderflower is available in supermarkets now.

If you need some gin-spiration, here’re two of the coktails from the night using Gordon’s With a Spot ofElderflower. There’s a sweet one for the fussy supertasters and a stronger one for those blessed with ‘normal’ taste buds.

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Summer Blossom

Easy to make and suiting any drinking occasion, Gordon’s With A Spot of Elderflower, white wine, apple juice and a dash of Earl Grey syrup – it’s a simple and elegant mixed drink, a real crowd pleaser.

Ingredients:

40ml Gordon’s With a Spot of Elderflower

20ml Sauvignon Blanc

20ml cloudy apple juice 15ml Earl Grey syrup*

Garnish: Elderflower

Method: Shake all ingredients, double strain and add garnish

*Earl Grey syrup can be easily made at home by soaking sugar water with an Earl Grey tea bag overnight.

Southwark Sour

The powerful sweet and sour flavour, attractive garnishes and tasty mixers of this cocktail make it the ideal party serve.

Ingredients:

50ml Gordon’s With a Spot of Elderflower

25ml Lemon juice 50ml Citrus honey water

15ml Raspberry vinegar

Garnish: Dehydrated lemon, raspberry

Method: Shake all ingredients with ice, strain and garnish

Method: Stir all ingredients, strain over ice and add garnish

Article originally written for Foodepedia.co.uk and can be found here.

Punch Drunk Love Potions at Bam-Bou

“Let’s talk about love” were Susie Johns’- mystic Tarot card reader extraordinaire – first words to me as she leant across the bar, fixing me with her bright stare as shadows from the nearby candles flickered across her face. Have there ever been more terrifying words uttered?

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Fair was foul and foul was fair as I hurried through the rain and climbed the flights of dark wood stairs to The Red Bar at Bam-Bou in Fitzrovia for a night of love potions, magic and mystical intrigue.

The setting was apt: a cherry-red room the colour and richness of a geisha’s lipstick, decked in mahogany, dark leather stools and flickering candle-light. The bar manager Ladislav Piljar had brewed up a list of cocktails targeting the love-lorn and love struck of London.

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My first drink, a blood-coloured lovers’ liquor was a heady mix of Passoã, Aperol and citrusy Mandarine Napoléon that sent my head into a spiral. By the second, an alcoholic punch to the stomach of Illy coffee, Kirsch Eau De Vie and Cherry Heering, I was feeling the glow of something…albeit potentially more of booze than love.

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I approached Susie with hesitation. Paradoxically I’m rather cynical about mysticism, crystals and Tarot cards, despite fervently believing in fate, in true love and in karma. Yet curiosity will always win out and as Susie pinned me in place with her penetrating stare and softly talked me though my cards I found myself foolishly nodding along, shivers running down my neck when she mentioned something utterly personal or painfully truthful.

What did my cards say? Now that would be telling. Bam-Bou is fetauring their brand of Love Potions in both their restaurant and Red Bar throughout February and Susie will be on hand for one-on-one readings on Tuesday the 4, 11 and 18, which will include a 15-minute reading and cocktail for £25 per person.

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The Love Potions on offer are all priced at £7:

photo 1 (1)♥ Ever After Elixir – a magical mixture devised to lure proposals out of the most hardened altar dodgers (Bacardi Superior, Crème de Cacao Blanc, Velvet Falernum)

♥ Cupid’s Kiss – turn any frog into a prince (Tapatio Blanco, Kummel, Crème de Menthe)

♥ Lovers’ liquor – all roads lead to seduction “pur et dur” (Passoã, Aperol, Mandarine Napoléon)

♥ Rocket Fuel – for those who have lost the lust (Illy coffee, Kirsch Eau De Vie, Cherry Heering)

For more info and booking, head to www.bam-bou.co.uk

Old Kings, Cocktails and Tea at The Dorchester

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Cocktails had a bit of a moment in 2013 as they were transformed from that cheeky pre-night out tipple into sophisticated, everyday concoctions. The term mixologist suddenly began to regularly feature in my vocabulary, connoisseurs started throwing everything from smoke to bacon flavours at booze and racing to see who could knock wine off the top diner spot by matching cocktails with food. And I was there, racing to try it all.

So when I heard that The King’s Ginger Liqueur and China Tang at the Dorchester were teaming up to combine the uniquely British pastime of a traditional afternoon tea with our nation’s penchant for a stiff drink I didn’t need much convincing to check it out.

The King’s Ginger has the premium credentials of being the world’s only high-strength ginger spirit and, made in 1903 for the gregarious monarch King Edward VII by macerating root ginger with lemon peel, it makes an understandable accompaniment for tea-based drinks. Which is exactly what head bar tender Luca C served up in a succession of gingery, heady cocktails using some of the finest tea leaves from China and matching them with some exquisite plates from the Asian influenced menu at the opulent China Tang.

China Tang

Surrounded by the dark wood, flock wallpaper and gold panelling of China Tang’s bar I was offered delights like Her Majes-tea, a light negroni made with gin, The King’s Ginger and sparkling oolong tea alongside a plate of delicately cooked tender black pepper squid; a plate of sticky Peking duck with a smoked margarita cut with kaffir lime, ginger and lapsang souchong and a steaming basket of bitter-sweet chocolate dumplings that arrived with a generous crystal tumbler of Royal Chai made with Appleton rum, chocolate bitters, lavender and obviously, a glug of The King’s Ginger.

The King's Ginger

If I’m honest, the accolades for the drinks were flowing quite freely by the end as is the intrinsic problem matching cocktails with food: after the third you’ll be too inebriated to tell the difference between the good the bad and the ugly anyway. However, if you’re looking for a satisfyingly different festive drink then you can’t go wrong with a palate challenging glass from The King’s Ginger and The Dorchester.

My pick was the spicy, smoky Edward’s Margarita, but you can make your own choice by visiting China Tang as The King’s Ginger Afternoon-Tea cocktails are now available and on the menu. Or you can try and make your own using the recipes below.

Margarita

Her Majes-tea (tea cups)

  • 35ml Colonel Fox’s Gin
  • 25ml The King’s Ginger
  • 20 ml Suze
  • Carbonated oloong tea
  • Stir with ice and strain into Chinese teacup. Top up with carbonated tea.

Edward’s Margarita

  • 45 ml Ocho tequila infused with Lapsang Tea
  • 15ml  TheKing’s Ginger
  • 15 ml Fresh lime juice
  • 10 ml Agave syrup
  • Garnish with kaffir lime leaf

Royal Chai

  • 35 ml Appleton rum
  • 35 ml The King’s Ginger
  • 10 ml Chai tea syrup
  • 5 Drops of Chocolate Bitters
  • Sprayed lavender bitters
  • Garnish with dried orange and sprig of lavender

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Original article written for and published by the fantastic foodepedia.co.uk and can be found here.