22 Dec 2010

A Salty German and a Tasty Argentinean

Argentinian, or Argentinean? Who knows. Not Argentine though I don't think, somehow has a bit of a jolly hockey sticks, British Empire, Major-from-Fawlty Towers ring to it. But I'd happily be corrected - answers on a postcard. Anyway a couple of very nice - and affordable - wines this week, both worthy of mention.

 First of all, The Naked Grape Riesling 2009, from Pfalz in Germany. Really clean and fresh, slightly salty like a cool sea breeze. I had it with a simple bowl of pasta, stirred through with flakes of smoked trout, a sliced fat clove of garlic, some fresh chilli and a good glug of olive oil. It went together nicely, although I reckon it'd be even better for washing down some really good fish and chips at the seaside, somewhere like Whitby. The zingy saltiness of the slightly off-dry wine mingling with the seaside tastes and smells. Maybe not in this weather though.

Whitby © bbc.co.uk

The riesling was earlier in the week. Tonight fancied a red, and we'd stuck a pizza in the oven, so I reached for this Santa Julia Bonarda Sangiovese 2009, from Mendoza in Argentina. Bonarda and Sangiovese are originally Italian grape varieties, so there's a good fresh acidity to it that you often get in Italian reds, with notes of lighter fruits like strawberries and cherries, but complemented by a little bit of South American oomph and a slight pepperiness to the aroma. A good bridge between Old World and New. Not overly complex, but a really moreish wine, and with a relatively low 13.5%abv (for a New World red) and it's very food-friendly too. Recommended.

I bought both of these wines from Waitrose: the Naked Grape is currently on offer for a bargain £5.69 and I think the Santa Julia is also a very good buy at the slightly random price of £7.11.

21 Dec 2010

Oz Clarke on Robert Parker: "I do basically like the bloke"

© ozclarke.com
I couldn't resist asking Oz Clarke for his thoughts on Robert Parker, the American wine writer often referred to as the most powerful critic in the world. Parker is famous for his 100-point rating system, with a high Parker rating worth millions in sales to Bordeaux winemakers. A number of British wine writers, even those who deploy their own rating systems, have criticised Parker for the way he operates, in particular for apparently favouring a certain style of wine (big and full-flavoured), leading to the so-called Parkerisation of wines. Some have also questioned how he goes about tasting the wines and decides on his scores, with the suggestion that tasting some in the company of winemakers at their wineries is not necessarily conducive to objectivity. But then again – to play devil's advocate – all wine journalists go on press trips to wineries, and who knows how much those trips influence their judgments, either consciously or subconsciously?

I put it to Oz Clarke that Parker comes in for a lot of criticism from British wine critics. "Yes he does, but he asks for it, that's the trouble," Oz said. "Because he's so bloody rude to Brits all the time… and I can't understand… I've known Robert for donkeys' years, you know, we were quite good mates in the old days and we still would be if we ever saw each other, but he's too busy marking wines. You know we used to go out drinking and go to jazz clubs and drink beer, and I don't know whether we chased women together, perhaps not, but I certainly felt as though I did.

© erobertparker.com
"And you know, we had a really good time together. And I used to taste with him on his panels. And I just think poor old Robert's got, you know... when you're so powerful and so successful sometimes you lose slight touch with reality - or you don't, but all the people around you do. And I think he's got an awful lot of people… you know, some of the people around him are very good - people like Neal who's the English guy who works with him, but some of the people around him, you think, did you really want those people saying 'I'm the voice of Robert Parker'? Because I like Neal and Neal's a good taster and he does a good job in Robert's name as well as in his own name - he's not in any way a sort of sycophant for Robert Parker - he went out on his own and said this is what I think, completely different to Parker some of the time. But… basically I just think Parker… he's more powerful than anyone should be, but I do basically like the bloke and I do basically... I enjoy his tasting because I understand it, so I know what he's tasting, I know the stuff he likes, I know why he likes these kind of wines."

By "these kind of wines", does Oz mean Parker does favour the full-flavoured, what you might call fruit bomb style? "Well yeah, yes he does. But on the other hand I can interpret that now. Even now if I had to choose somebody and say, let's see what another critic says, I would probably think let's see what Parker says. Not because I'd necessarily agree with him, but because I know how Parker thinks and for me that's important to know how the guy thinks."

14 Dec 2010

Oz Clarke: "If you're in a bad mood, it's really tough to taste red wine"

I got to interview Oz Clarke recently because he was coming up to Yorkshire for the Love Cooking food festival. It was absolutely brilliant having the chance to talk to him about wine - and he clearly still has so much passion for the stuff. I got his views on a number of interesting subjects: the best cheap wines; Robert Parker; his Christmas wine recommendations; his views on rating wines out of 100. We chatted about so many interesting subjects that I'm going to split this up into a couple of blog posts, otherwise this one would end up being ridiculously long.

What absolutely shone through is his passion, and without any hint of snobbery. That's partly why he's become such a successful wine writer and TV personality, I think - as wine writers develop their expertise, it must be very easy to lose sight of the fact that their job is to speak to consumers, not to each other. Oz very much speaks to consumers - he obviously gets to taste the very best wines in the world, and yet he is still able to enjoy a good supermarket wine. He appreciates there's a time and a place for both.

One thing that also came through quite strongly as we chatted was his love of a good drink that's packed full of flavour. I think sauvignon blanc was the grape he happened to mention more often than any other, and he also spoke with great passion about the bold crunchy fruit of Spanish garnacha, especially in the context of Christmas. As Oz himself put it: "The kind of stuff you slap into a glass and say 'here fellas let's have a glass of this' as against sitting around quietly and pouring out the Bordeaux and thinking, hey, let's talk about this. The garnacha you don't talk about, you just say bloody hell that's good, basically, let's have some more!"

Having said that, he did say red Bordeaux probably provides his greatest pleasure in the world of wine, when the mood takes him: "If I was rather more contemplative, quiet, you know mellow, wintry kind of mood actually; in December I'll be in a red Bordeaux mood."

I couldn't resist asking Oz about the scoring of wines - be it on a 20-point or 100-point scale, say - because it's one aspect of wine criticism that I sometimes find a bit daft. As much as I have great respect for professional wine writers' knowledge, giving an experience as romantic and subjective as a glass of wine a rating out of 100 seems both unwanted and misleading. Can you really be so specific? What does Oz think about critics publicly rating wines? "If that's how they wanna do it, let them, I mean, I just think it's all… it's not bollocks, because… I can mark a wine 89 or 90 or 91, I just don't wanna publish it. I might do that to help me over a range of 50 wines, thinking is that one just a bit better than that one, but I don't wanna put that down in black and white for the audience, I wanna sort of try and tell them why I like the stuff. Engage them."
And surely context affects the rating given to a wine? "Yes. Absolutely right. The idea of the context - a couple of points up, a couple of points down, with context. You can taste differently. Are you happy, are you sad, are you in love, are you out of love, you know, have you had an argument with your girlfriend, did you get out of bed the wrong side, is your mum playing up? All of these things change, you know. Especially with red wine - if you're in a bad mood it's really tough to taste red wine. You know, your mouth can taste bitter and dry and the wine tastes bitter and dry."

So is it better to opt for a fresh white wine in that case? "Yeah... or basically give up for the day and go to the pub, have a beer. That'll calm you down and you can go and do some red wine tasting." 

The original Leeds Guide piece can be read here.

30 Nov 2010

Which major wine region or country could you do without? For ever?

The wine writer Tim Atkin caused a bit of a stir this week by asking on Twitter and Facebook: "If you had to choose, which major wine region or country could you do without? For ever." Almost one hundred people voted (and an unspecified number of people were offended).

It was obviously all a bit tongue-in-cheek: clearly no true wine lover would ever willingly close themselves off from any region or country through choice. But it's an interesting thing to think about.

Reluctantly, I originally opted for the USA, purely on cost grounds. I've really enjoyed many of the American wines I've tried, it's just that here in the UK good American wines generally cost more than good wines from other countries. Tim Atkin himself makes the same point here.

But then I thought again, and I changed my mind. I just instinctively feel like there are lots of American wines I'm yet to try, and that I'd really like to try. Maybe it's because of the film Sideways romanticising the vineyards of California in my mind. But there are plenty of high-quality American pinots, cabernets and (the much-maligned) zinfandels out there, not just from California but also increasingly from places like Washington state.

So I opted for Germany. I can say now that no professional wine writers will have chosen Germany. Or I'll be surprised if they did. I may be wrong, but many professional wine writers in the 70s and 80s probably wouldn't have been seen dead championing German wines, but they are in fashion again now among those in the know. As with many things, as they became less popular among the general public, they became more popular among enthusiasts. Sharp rieslings and, increasingly I think light reds like pinot noirs, have found favour of late. But if pushed, I personally could (reluctantly) do without these. A shame, as I've not really explored the world of German wine yet, but there are plenty of countries producing interesting whites and lighter reds that I could turn to. And I have to be honest, I don't really buy German wine. Perhaps that's something that should change.

It doesn't come naturally to rule out any country's wines. Perhaps it would be a nice exercise for everyone who took part to buy a nice bottle from the country they gave as their answer. I'll do that myself with Germany, to prove it was nothing personal.

And a positive from all this is that it reminds you about the great wealth of choice we now have as wine drinkers. There's never been a better time as a consumer to go into a wine shop and take your pick.

In case you were wondering, the USA and Bordeaux were the winners (losers?) in Tim Atkin's poll. Controversial eh. At least if nothing else it's a fair old world-new world split.

As an aside, I thought it was interesting that Chile was a popular choice as the country people could do without, especially seemingly among wine writers or those who spend a bit more on their wine. Personally, I'd never have chosen Chile. Great value wines if you're spending up to a tenner, and a country I think will only offer even more exciting wines in future (like most of the new world). I can see that if you tend to spend £20 or more on a bottle, you might not usually buy Chilean. But also perhaps Chile and Germany are two sides of the same coin in the sense of what's fashionable, with enthusiasts seeking to differentiate themselves from the rest.

Which country's or region's wines could you do without?

8 Nov 2010

Waitrose Wine 25% Discount: What's In Your Basket?

Waitrose is currently offering 25% off all cases of wine, when you buy twelve bottles online or six in store. I've placed my order, but if you want some you'll have to act fast, as the offer ends at midnight on 10th November. Having said that, a supermarket wine price war (a great tabloid phrase) seems to be underway, with several running similar offers.

Which Waitrose wines are on their way to me? I've gone for eight new world and four old, with a bias towards fairly big, warming reds (but not overblown alco-fruit bombs) for the cold weeks ahead. A few of the highlights include a bottle of SC Pannell Shiraz/Grenache 2004 from Australia's McLaren Vale; three malbecs from Argentina, including a bottle of Colomé Estate 2008 from Salta and a bottle of Catena 2008 from Mendoza; a Prominent Hill Single Vineyard Shiraz 2007 from Adelaide Hills; a bottle of Altano 2008 from Douro, Portugal - a potential snip at £4.86; a Planeta Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2008 from Sicily, and a bottle of the iconic FMC Chenin Blanc.

29 Oct 2010

Rooster's Pumpkin Beer

This really is what it looks like. It is a massive pumpkin perched on the side of a bar with a tap poking out the bottom. Pumpkin conditioned beer, with a warming, slightly spicy flavour, created by inventive Knaresborough brewery Rooster's: a perfect warming snifter in Leeds' North Bar on the way home from work.

28 Oct 2010

Les Jamelles Reserve Mourvèdre 2008 (£4.99, Co-op)

You don't often see mourvèdre as a single varietal wine on sale in the supermarkets. More often than not the grape is reduced to a supporting role in blends, playing a less glamorous second fiddle to the likes of syrah and grenache. Always the bridesmaid but never the bride.

So I was surprised to see this bottle on the shelf in my local Co-op, which, it has to be said, has a pretty decent range of wines around the £5-8 mark. Some other local supermarkets several times the size have less inspiring wine sections.

I bought this wine on curiosity value. And at just under a fiver, I wasn't expecting a lot (remember, after taxes and packaging costs etc are taken into account, only something like 50p of your money is going towards the wine itself for a bottle around this price). But this was worth the £5. Not a wine I'd recommend taking to someone's house I admit, but quite an interesting one.

My first thought on giving it a good sniff in the glass is dark chocolate, followed by a waft of spicy cloves. Also a bit of mushroomy earthiness in there too. To taste, it's an earthy one, and it seems a touch unripe to me. Not overly fruity, perhaps just a bit of blackberry underneath the earthy spice.

Not a crowd pleaser and I won't be rushing to buy it again, but it's got some character, and I'm glad I tried it.

12 Oct 2010

Secret Wines Revealed: It's Costières de Nîmes!

The true identities of the secret wines have been revealed - and sadly I didn't win. But on the plus side, I wasn't a million miles away. All three wines came from the Costières de Nîmes, an appellation that was once classed as part of the Languedoc region but is now the southernmost appellation in the Rhône valley. The region has similar stony terraces to those seen in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, an AOC which got a mention in my tasting notes for wine #390. But if truth be told, I probably wouldn't have guessed Costières de Nîmes in a month of dimanches.

Here's a quick overview of the wines:
Wine #079
My original answer: Grands Vins de Languedoc
True identity: Les Rameaux 2008, Château Grande Cassagne
Grapes: 80% syrah, 20% grenache

Wine #390
My original answer: Cahors
True identity: Capitelles des Mourgues 2008, Château Mourgues du Grès
Grapes: 85% syrah, 10% carignan, 5% grenache
Incidentally, uber-critic Robert Parker likes this one, rating it 90/100. And I'm pleased to see I was right to suggest it was at least 14%ABV (turns out it's 14.5%).

Wine #714
My original answer: Côtes du Rhône
True identity: Nostre Païs 2008 (Michel Gassier)
Grapes: 35% grenache, 25% carignan, 20% mourvèdre, 15% cinsault, 5% syrah

In summary, I'd strongly recommend wine #079 - Les Rameaux 2008 - which, it turns out, can be bought for around a fiver. A real bargain - I'd have guessed it would cost a fair bit more than that. And congratulations to Ingvar Johansson from Sweden, who got the correct answer!
Details of all the wines and more info about the Costières de Nîmes can be seen here.

11 Oct 2010

Autumn Food: Morocco Ale with Chicken Thighs, Lentils and Potatoes

The nights are drawing in, it's getting a bit brisk out, and almost without realising, you change what you're eating and drinking. It's the end of the working day and you face a walk into the darkness, a miserable fight with the blustery wind and rain. A chilled pale ale and light salad isn't going to be the comfort blanket you need. Autumn's kicked in; everything you eat and drink is getting darker, meatier, spicier, chunkier, warmer.

A big glug of olive oil and a piece of butter goes into the pan with a load of garlic, a small heap of chilli and a pinch or two of whatever warming spices you have in your cupboard (now's not the time for dainty measurements). When it all sizzles, the chicken thighs (which are great value) go in for a few minutes, then a tin of tomatoes and a can of lentils. Simmer 'til cooked. Roast some potatoes, and bob's your uncle. Well, almost.

He is now. The superb Morocco Ale from Daleside Brewery ambles nonchalantly out of the cupboard and takes off his hat and gloves, proving a pretty good impromptu pairing for the frankly made-up-as-you-go-along chicken and lentil thing. In the mouth the Morocco Ale is a well balanced mix of marmitey goodness and dried fruit, with a little hint of spice that mingles nicely with the meaty sauce.

The warm cocoon of your living room, dark beer in hand, the wind swaying against the windows; all is well.

10 Oct 2010

Tommy Tiernan interview: "I don't think I'm controversial"

Stand-up comedian Tommy Tiernan is a huge star in his native Ireland. He's apparently second only to U2 in terms of live ticket sales in the country, and his DVDs sell more than anyone else. He's also an extremely popular figure in Canada and the US, where he's appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman several times.
I was fortunate enough to interview him a few weeks ago for Leeds Guide magazine, and I'm going to see him perform live at the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds later this month. His storming performance as the headline act on the latest episode of Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow (you can see it again here) has whetted my appetite for seeing him perform his latest show, Crooked Man. Here are some snippets of my conversation with him. (Photo: Nick Hitchcox)

Do you notice certain material goes down better in certain places or is it universal?
No - I know that if I introduce an idea that could in any way be misinterpreted as something horrific, I think that the more civilised audiences are… it takes a minute or two for them to kind of trust me. Whereas I much prefer performing to the uncivilised because they know I’m joking.

You’ve been labelled a controversial comic. Do you think it's part of your job to be controversial - or do you not agree with the idea that you are?
I don’t think I’m controversial. I like to have fun with the world, if you know what I mean. I like to look at the world and have fun and laugh at it. And I think if people think that’s controversial then… honestly, now, it’s just like free-wheeling down a hill on your bicycle, and say you come down a hill and the road stretches out and you go through a town, two legs sticking out and you’re singing, people might think that’s inappropriate. But it’s not really, it’s just fun.

"One of the themes of the show is the desire to know less and not to confuse information with wisdom"

How do you go about writing your shows - do you have ideas you feel passionate about and then try to find humour in it?
I do have big ideas that I feel passionate about but I find them very hard to get into the show. So it’s almost like I have to be talking about something else in order for whatever theories of life I have to seep through. It’s just about having fun really. Say last night, I was doing an impression of an old rabbi walking along a dusty road, and that morphed into Paolo Nutini. Now that’s not something that I’d be able to think of sitting at home, and it’s not something that’s particularly clever. It’s just silly. That’s the kind of stuff that ends up in the show. It’s just fun. There are other things in the show - it’s intelligent, there are different types of storytelling going on - but it’s not something that’s overly manufactured. If a clever person gets drunk, that’s what my show is like!

What are the main themes of the show?
I think that one of the themes of the show is the desire to know less and not to confuse information with wisdom. Other themes of the show are… I don’t know, this isn’t like a breakthrough novel with great ideas. The show is complaining about sex and is talking about the recession, all kinds of things in there. What I say to the people at the beginning is that my ambition is that we both leave here knowing less than we did when we came in.

What's the most important ingredient for making people laugh - the material, the way you say it or something else?
I think it’s fun. I know I’m saying that word a lot but I was listening to an American comedian called Doug Benson last night and he has one of his albums on iTunes and I was sat listening to it in bed. I was rolling around the place laughing because he was talking about how he went into a men’s toilet and the guy beside him farted, and it was just the way he did it was so brilliant, because he wasn’t trying to be clever and at the same time he wasn’t gratuitous or cheap. There was just something, and it’s very hard to define what that is. The same person can like Bill Hicks and Tommy Cooper and a bit of Morecambe & Wise and The Two Ronnies and Dylan Moran. I think if everybody is honest to their own inclinations then that’s a good start.

Are you able to relax and enjoy other comics or do you find yourself analysing them?
I tend to analyse them more if they’re shit. If they’re good, I’m laughing; if they’re shit, I’m kind of going ‘hmmm, how did he get so shit?’.

Would you reveal who the two ends of the scale are for you at the moment - are there any comedians you like and dislike?
I’d say, last night there was Doug Benson, check him out on iTunes, he has an album called Unbalanced Load, and he’s a dope smoker, he talks about smoking dope and he’s really, really funny. The person I think is the worst at the moment, which I wouldn’t cross the street to see for love nor money and all my kids’ health…? That feeling is reserved for myself.

Full interview originally published in Leeds Guide

8 Oct 2010

Alun Cochrane interview

Stand-up comedian Alun Cochrane is someone who has mastered his trade to the extent that he makes it all look so easy, deceptively so. His comedy is largely observational and it's intelligent without trying too hard to be, in fact almost while pretending not to be ("I'm making more of an effort to grow up… sometimes I watch Newsnight all the way through and then think shit, I forgot to listen"). As he suggests in this interview I recently did for Plush magazine, perhaps his understated style has worked against him when it comes to earning wider recognition.

"I would much rather spend the evening with all the guys off Mock The Week if there were no cameras there," he says on the subject of television panel shows. "I've had a couple of really good gigs on the night on panel games. It's just I find there's a certain level of aggression that goes with them that I find a bit disinteresting. And now that comics know that they could sell out a tour if they get a handful of regular spots on a panel game, then people are even more aggressive. And this isn't me being mean to any particular comic," he reflects, "it just brings out a side in people that I just find a bit dull. In truth, I was brought up by my mum, single-parent family, with a real interest in politeness and good manners, and I find it physically difficult to interrupt people. And on the shows you really have to. I sit there and think, oh I'd rather not interrupt folk, I'll be funny when they ask me!"

A well-respected circuit comic, perhaps Cochrane hits the nail on the head with the suggestion that his unassuming demeanour works against him in the cut-throat world of panel shows, which these days seem to form a big part of the standard career path for a successful stand-up, which begins with small gigs in pubs and ends with a well-paid TV presenter's role, with panel shows, stadium tours and a live DVD somewhere in between. But when he's been given the opportunity to perform stand-up on TV, Cochrane's talents have certainly translated well to the small screen, as his everyday tales of supremely observed incidents, and his warm delivery, carry a universal appeal.

We start discussing his current tour: "It's called Jokes. Life. And Jokes About Life. And it's basically that. It very much describes the show. So if you don't fancy it, don't come!" he laughs. I ask whether his comedy style has always been storytelling rather than gag-based. "Well, actually in this show I am doing joke telling," he reveals. "I've got a tub full of jokes that I've written that I pull out and I also contrast that a bit with doing what I do normally, which is jokes about life. So I'm mixing it up a bit. So there are moments of experimental stuff, because I'm doing joke-jokes, which isn't really my thing, but it's really good fun. And yes, in answer to your question, I like it when it's just about life. I love the fact that you can literally turn thoughts you've had on a train into comedy; I really love that experience."

Having performed stand-up for a number of years, Cochrane jokes that he can’t remember his life and work before comedy. "Last year I was on tour and I was going to Brighton and I jumped on the train from Manchester to London, and Gail off Coronation Street was in the same carriage as me, in standard. I then said on stage that night, 'I think if you've been doing stand-up as long as I have, you've got every right to expect to be the most famous person in standard class'. First class, different rules apply - you can be on there with Andrew Lloyd Webber - but Gail off Coronation Street is provably more famous than me. I've been quite good at this for a while - I should be more known than that, surely?"

Originally published in Plush magazine

2 Oct 2010

David Baddiel interview: "I think I am 100% atheist"

I interviewed David Baddiel a couple of months or so ago. We were talking about The Infidel, a film he wrote, in which Omid Djalili plays a Muslim man called Mahmud who discovers that he was adopted as a child and that he was actually born a Jew. Baddiel told me that the film ended up with a smaller budget than he'd expected (about £1m, not loads for a feature film), but by and large the finished product is "pretty close" to what he'd anticipated, albeit with smaller crowd scenes and fewer "bells and whistles". Because of the film's theme, we ended up talking about all kinds of things - politics, religion, ethnicity, multiculturalism. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

SO'H: What inspired you to write the film?
David Baddiel: When I was young a lot of people thought I was Indian, loads of people. I actually got beaten up, once for being Jewish and once for being Pakistani, and then when I was on telly for the first time, loads of people used to write in saying 'you're the funniest Indian comedian I've ever seen', and I was always quite happy with that. So I always had around me a sense of people not quite knowing which ethnic box to put me in. And then when I saw Omid [Djalili], who was the first comedian to really kind of tackle race and religion as his main subject, not only was it interesting that he was doing that but also I didn't know, is he Muslim, he could be Jewish, whatever. He turned out to be Baha'i, which is a religion which believes that all religions are part of the same book, which made him perfect in a way. And so it was that really: it was a combination of the sense of ethnic confusion that hangs around me, and seeing Omid Djalili. It was always written with him in mind. Even though I'd had the idea for a while, I'd never really thought about doing it until I met Omid and he was up for it.

"There is a part of me that will be eternally grateful to this country" 

SO'H: You're on record as saying you're an atheist - can you ever be 100% atheist after your upbringing?
David Baddiel: I think I am 100% atheist. I mean I'm Jewish, there's no doubt I'm culturally Jewish, I think the tone of my comedy is pretty Jewish and the way I think is quite Jewish, and you know I'm neurotic and all that stuff, something of a hypochondriac and a depressive, I'm all those things because I'm Jewish, but I absolutely, totally, I don't just believe this, I know there is no god. I know it like I know that stone is hard. And for that reason I'm not that bothered about it… I quite like religion. I sometimes read Dawkins… Dawkins and people like that, because there's a tiny bit of them, like, he was brought up very religious, they seem to me to be shrill a little bit, because they're not relaxed with their atheism. I am so confident that god doesn't exist, I think religion's quite sweet and nice and got poetry and magic in it: it's fine, it's just completely wrong.

SO'H: How successfully do you think multiculturalism operates in Britain?
David Baddiel: Well one of the things I'm proud of about being British is that, for all the fact that obviously there are racial issues in Britain and there's BNP in Britain and whatever, I think that Britain has managed to be an incredibly tolerant country. I know this just because my mother is a holocaust survivor, my mother fought in Nazi Germany and she escaped with three weeks to go before the war started to come here where, you know, things were not easy to be honest, but she managed to build a life for herself, and her parents managed to build lives for themselves. And there is a part of me that will be eternally grateful to this country for that. And for all the fact that there are racists in this country, we've never had anything like... anything that looks like a fascist government in this country. We've never had real dangers like there still are in Europe, and parties that can create that. And yet we've got more races in this country than most other places. I mean, I spent some time in Belgium, for example, when I say some time I don't mean I was there for two years, I was there for three weeks in Belgium, doing a weird literary festival. And people would say to me, very kind of intellectual bohemian types, they would say 'we have to do something about the immigrants'. And I would say 'what immigrants?' and they would say 'haven't you seen them?' and I'd say 'I haven't seen any since I've been here'. They would mean the sort of four black people in Antwerp. And I'd say 'come to London, we're fine with that', you know. And I think that is a great thing about Britain, so even though there are problems, it's basically working alright.

SO'H: What would be your opinion on banning burkas?
David Baddiel: I wouldn't ban burkas obviously. I think it's an unbritish thing to do and also in terms of The Infidel, I think there is a way forward there with relaxation and comedy - the woman in the burka in that, who's Nina Anwar, who's a Muslim, you know, what I did with that was to make her not a frightening alien figure but to make her someone who talks about Grazia and fashion... and that is based on what Muslim people tell me is that lots of those women are like that. But she's still... what I didn't want was a moment like you've got in Sex and the City 2 where the women take off their burkas and they've got fantastic designer clothes underneath - I think that's shit in a way. What I think, it's a woman who's fine in a burka but is also not a stereotype either.

SO'H: What's your assessment of the coalition government?
David Baddiel: Well I voted Labour, but to be honest I'm not very interested in party politics. I voted Labour because Glenda Jackson's my MP and because she was great on The Morecambe & Wise Show in 1974. And that is the real reason why I can't not vote for Glenda, because of that. She once said on a radio show that she thought that was the high point of her career. And I love her for that. And in a way, that's more important to me than what her politics are. I was brought up in a very left-wing household, I will always have an emotional attachment to voting Labour, but to be honest, you know, I thought a lot of them were a shower of fools as well. So the coalition seems to be doing alright to me.

SO'H: You were doing your PhD when you had your big break in comedy - what would you have ended up doing without that break?
David Baddiel: I'd have been quite a bitter academic. I'd have stayed in academia, I'd have been quite bitter thinking that I should be a celebrity, and trying to have sex but being turned down by students.

The Infidel is out now on DVD.
You can read the original Leeds Guide article here.

29 Sep 2010

Secret Wine: The Tasting

There is a great emphasis on terroir in French wine - the concept that wine should have a sense of place, that it should taste of where it comes from - but this doesn't mean that wines from each region necessarily have common defining characteristics that give away their identity in a blind tasting: there are so many variables in winemaking. But each region does of course tend towards a certain style. And what wine lover could resist the challenge of uncovering some secret wines?

So, I tasted the three mystery bottles, mulled it over and posted my answers on the Secret Wine site. It was really enjoyable tasting the wines without knowing anything about them, trying to work out where they came from.

There has since been a message posted by the Secret Wine team to say that a number of bloggers (from various countries) have entered their votes - but as yet no-one has provided the three correct answers. Zut alors.

Here are my findings on the mystery wines.

Wine #079
This was the first wine I tasted, and it was very impressive - it turned out to be my favourite of the three. A really classy wine. Pouring it into the glass it was very dark, almost inky black in colour (triggering a thought of Cahors down in the south west of France, famed for its so-called 'black wines'). An enticing aroma of blackcurrant and plums with a raisiny, almost brandy-like undertone precedes a gorgeously balanced taste of slightly sweet purple fruit, very smooth, powerful yet with a soft mouthfeel. This wine was so good I wondered about Bordeaux, St Emilion perhaps, but opted in the end for the Languedoc region. My answer was Grands Vins de Languedoc - although in retrospect a more specific answer may have been Minervois.

Wine #390
This was the most powerful of the three and I'm fairly certain it was at least 14%ABV. Again a very dark red, purple colour, but this time with an almost syrupy full body. A port-like aroma with meaty and minty notes, with more menthol and herby flavours and some oak coming through in the mouth, with a slightly overpowering alcoholic hit. I toyed with it perhaps being a Chateauneuf du Pape, but settled on Cahors, partly because it reminded me slightly of an Argentinian malbec - a grape common to Cahors (albeit known as Auxerrois or Cot).

Wine #714
Just a touch thinner than the other two this one, and not as powerful on the nose. Aromas of raspberry, blackberry, blueberry and black pepper were followed up by raspberry and blackberry on the palate. Fairly easy drinking. In terms of grapes, I half wondered about pinot noir, or cabernet perhaps, but it reminded me of a Rhone GSM (grenache-syrah-mourvedre), so that was my thinking when I opted for Cotes du Rhone.

It'll be interesting to find out how close or far away I am. Looking at other people's answers on the Secret Wine site, most have had similar thinking around the south of France. But who knows. That full bodied #390, for instance, could even be Californian or Australian. I'll report the results when they're announced. We don't yet know who wins the prizes if nobody calls all three wines correctly.

24 Sep 2010

Secret Wine

I've entered into the Secret Wine competition. Wine bloggers have been sent three mysteriously anonymous bottles of wine, with the simple task (ahem) of tasting them and saying which appellation(s) in France the wines have come from. The prizes are a wine tourism stay for two people worth 1,000 euros and cases of six bottles of wine. Like I say, winning these prizes merely involves the simple matter of identifying the birthplace of each wine. Not an easy task, but a fun one, and it'll be interesting to find out the true identities of the wines.

20 Sep 2010

Italian Craft Beer Evening, The Lounge, Leeds

I recently attended a beer and food evening at the Lounge Bar & Grill in Leeds. The Lounge hosts these nights regularly, with the focus on a different set of beers each month, the chef creating a menu designed to complement the beers. This time it was a selection of Italian beers. I was impressed by the quality of both the food and the drink.

Incidentally, as well as the great flavours, what's noticeable about these beers is that they're nicely designed. Not just the striking labels, but the occasional use of swing-top closures, which emphasise the craft brewing credentials, and the 75cl bottles - an apparently growing trend in craft beer. What's significant about 75cl? It's wine bottle size. It's a visual cue that this is a drink to be savoured, and to be enjoyed with food - in other words, to be treated like wine. Craft beer companies must be thinking, if people pay £15 for a bottle of house wine with their meal, then they might be willing to pay around that for a bottle of house beer instead.

Anyway, on to the meal. First up some canapes (bruschetta, crisp chicken livers, fish fritters) were paired with a bottle of La Gradisca (4.7% alcohol). A good solid start, the nibbles washed down nicely by the Gradisca. It's an uncomplicated, refreshing and easy-drinking lager, which is no criticism, with lower carbonation and a touch more flavour than the average mainstream lager. It'd go down very nicely as a thirst quencher at a summer barbecue, or with a pizza.

On to the starter, which was a terrine of local rabbit, crisp pancetta and fig chutney, paired with Isaac (5% alcohol), a wheat beer. The Isaac was served in a wine glass, which suited it. Isaac has an almost sparkling wine type character to it, with its lightly fruity, apricoty aroma. It has virtually no carbonation - it looked like apple juice in the glass - and worked well with the starter, much as a crisp white wine probably would have done. I'd imagine it'd also go well with a seafood starter, something like prawns or scallops.

It was a duo of mains: chargrilled halibut steak with aubergine and crispy onion rings; and spiced fillet of mackerel with crab and potato salad, creme fraiche and lemon. The two beers that arrived with the mains were Open (7.5% alcohol) and ReAle Extra (6.4% alcohol). Open again brought to mind a good white wine and it worked very nicely with the halibut, the aromatic US hops lifting the flavours in the dish, the moreish, hoppy bitterness of each sip compelling another soon after. It's a good example of a hoppy beer that remains balanced: it's not hitting you over the head; it's drinkable as well as interesting.

The ReAle Extra is lighter in alcohol but there's even more bitterness. The story goes that the brewers forgot to add the necessary hops to the brew and were faced with a 30-second window of what to do - so they attempted to save it by whacking in three times the usual amount of hops but just in the last ten minutes of brewing. "From a mistake, the ReAle is now a masterpiece," our guide Giulio tells us as we take a sip. You hear these kinds of stories from time to time in the alcohol world, where the line between marketing myth and historical fact is hazy. But it's a nice story and you like to think it really happened. And mistake or not, this fresh, hoppy beer is another impressive brew.

But the dessert course was perhaps most impressive of all... or was I bound to think that after four fairly strong beers? The Keto Reporter (5.2% alcohol) was paired with a dark chocolate tart and hazelnut praline ice cream - both the drink and the food were superb; not only that but they worked a treat together. This porter is a really interesting one, not least because a handful of Kentucky tobacco leaves are thrown in during the brewing process (five leaves per 2,500l, I think), meaning that those dark chocolate, treacley, rounded aromas you'd expect are encircled by a whiff of smoke. It's a drink to treat as a rare luxury: the smokiness might become too much if you drank a lot or often, but in this context, as a little snifter of a nightcap alongside the lovely dark chocolate tart, it was superb. As Giulio put it: "It's the last drink of the night, you have a cigar, a tiramisu, a lovely lady..."

14 Sep 2010

Magus (3.8% alcohol)

I'd recommend this Durham Brewery beer if you enjoy pale ale. I've never tried it on cask, but in the bottle it's got a lovely lemony-fresh, slightly floral aroma, which follows through into an easy drinking flavour with a surprisingly hoppy finish. It's not every night you want the stormy hit of a massive 10%ABV beer; sometimes a light shower of reassuring light ale is all you need. And if you're in the mood for a light session ale with a decent hit of hops, the Magus is a good bet.

12 Sep 2010

Lagonda IPA (5% alcohol)

Manchester's Marble Brewery have been one of the darlings of beer bloggery over recent months. They're up there with the likes of Thornbridge, if not quite BrewDog, for the amount of reviews and positive comments they've been attracting. As well as knowing how to make good beers, these companies know how to package and promote them - how to engage with the online community - hence the large amount of coverage.

The Lagonda is one of those all-out bitter IPAs, very grapefruity in its aroma and on the palate. In fact the slightly perfumed aroma is so brisk and clean it almost brings to mind the swimming baths, cleaning products even, especially as it has a faint lemony tinge to it. On the palate there are also passion fruit and seville orange notes, with a grapefruity, mouth sappingly bitter finish.

It's a well made beer, with plenty going on in terms of flavour. I wouldn't drink more than one in a sitting though - just half a bottle or so is fine for me before it all starts to get a bit too much, the cleansing bitterness reaching a point where I'm ready for a different flavour - but that's just a personal preference.

11 Sep 2010

Capucine, Les Ollieux 2009 (£8.49, Oddbins)

This is a superb wine from the Corbieres appellation down in the Languedoc in the south of France. It's a region that traditionally had a reputation for workmanlike full-bodied reds, but I'm increasingly finding it to be the source of some brilliant value wines that are sometimes similar in style to ripe Chilean reds, thanks to the hot sunshine the area enjoys.

This wine - a blend of Carignan, Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet and Merlot - has an alluring dusky aroma of faint bonfire smoke and savoury olives, followed up by bags of pure concentrated fruit on the palate.

A delicious and complex wine, and nicely packaged too. The tasting note on the back label says: "Capucine is a funny wine with flavours of cherry and red fruits, soft spices and a round full bodied palate." Funny in a good way.

1 Sep 2010

Venetian Pale Ale (5.2% alcohol)

This Venetian Pale Ale is so-called because it fermented while my brother Matthew and his wife Angela were on holiday in Venice. They've produced a fine range of ales since taking up brewing: everything from lager to Belgian-style Dubbels and Trippels to a warming Bourbon Christmas Stout (which came in at a whopping 11% alcohol).

The Venetian Pale Ale, their latest creation, has a lovely clean aroma of fresh morning dew with a merest hint of hay. On the palate it's slightly floral and has a touch of Belgian-ness - that enticing suggestion of hay in the background - but with a refreshing and brilliantly clean and crisp bitterness to the finish.

Matthew hopped it with a mix of Centennial, Chinook and Pioneer, and fermented it at 20C with Irish ale yeast - which although is traditionally used for darker beers and stouts, can add plenty of interest to a pale ale such as this one, and it may have contributed to the dry, crisp finish. Centennial is a citrussy variety that's widely used in American IPAs; he opted for Chinook to add a nice burnt, herby flavour; and finally the classically English Pioneer is a sister of Herald and brings in some soft, clean aromatics. An excellent, well balanced pale ale.

25 Aug 2010

Trapiche Broquel Torrontes 2008 (£9.99, Laithwaites)

Torrontes is a quietly fashionable grape at the moment, and with good reason. Oaky, buttery New World Chardonnay fell out of favour; people started to get a bit weary of pincer-sharp Sauvignon Blanc; Pinot Grigio became ubiquitous but was often bland; so a void was left for a fresh and potentially complex white: step forward Torrontes.

There are actually three varieties of Torrontes, but the higher-end stuff tends to be made from Torrontes Riojano, and that's what's used in this wine. It's almost sherryish on the nose and on the palate it's certainly off-dry, almost Germanic in character, with notes of honey and candied lemon but with a purity of fruit and almost Champagne-esque clean edge that stops it from cloying. It contains 5% Sauvignon Blanc, which probably contributes a crisp acidity that balances out the richness nicely.

In terms of food and wine matching, it didn't work brilliantly with vegetables in black bean sauce. But it would surely complement other lightly spiced oriental cuisine, such as Thai green curry or coconut and chilli prawns. And it worked a treat with some trout fillets, lightly fried in olive oil with garlic and smoky bacon. Trapiche Broquel Torrontes would also make for an excellent pre-dinner drink to liven up the tastebuds.

20 Aug 2010

Le Froglet Shiraz 2009 (£5.49, Marks & Spencer)

Le Froglet (12.5% alcohol) has won a Gold medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2010. It's a pretty impressive achievement for a wine that costs just £5.49 a bottle and was tasted alongside almost 11,000 wines (it was one of 208 entries that took Gold). It's also newsworthy because you can buy it in a single-serve plastic cup with a sealed lid ("cup-a-wine"), albeit at a higher price.

So, what's it like? Well not surprisingly, it's a decent wine, very decent. On the nose it's got that nice, almost leathery whiff that some Argentinian Malbecs have, along with bags of dark blackcurrant fruit and some dark chocolate on the palate, with a characteristic Shiraz twist of spice. It doesn't mention it on the label, but the M&S website lists Grenache as well as Shiraz, so that probably explains the slightly thinner, less tannic quality than you might expect.

As an aside, given that it's from France's Languedoc region it seems strange it's labelled Shiraz as opposed to Syrah (although they're the same grape, the former tends only to be used in the New World), especially given that it's 12.5% alcohol as opposed to your typical Aussie Shiraz of 14%+. I suspect it's more to do with ongoing attempts to re-brand French wines to compete with their New World counterparts, than it is to do with the style of this particular wine.

And I'd probably differ slightly from Decanter editor Guy Woodward in that I wouldn't say it's an overly complex wine - you wouldn't expect it to be at this price - but as an easy drinking glugger for picnics or lunchtime treats or pizza nights, I think it's among the best options on the high street if you've a fiver to spend.

But I must admit I'm surprised it out-performed certain other wines in its category that are surely more complex. Sorry to keep banging on about it, but I think it all comes back to context - judges were tasting hundreds and hundreds of wines over a few days and, for whatever reason, this one came out on top. Perhaps its easy drinking quality made it stand out among heavier, spicier alternatives. Perhaps it was another reason. But I bet if the judges had a couple of glasses of Le Froglet at home, followed by a couple of glasses of certain other entrants, they might come to a different conclusion. It's not a criticism - the fact that your own wants and tastes change from one day to the next is one reason why drinking wine and beer is so interesting and so enjoyable.

Bargain alert: at the time of writing, you can pick up Le Froglet for a mere £3.74 a bottle, if you buy a case of 12 online. Now that is a bargain.

17 Aug 2010

Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow, Leeds

Seeing Michael McIntyre perform live on two separate occasions in the same week, in the same city, is an interesting experience. Firstly on the Tuesday, it's an intimate gig up above The Library pub (really good venue for stand-up by the way); then, on the Thursday, it's for the filming of the latest episode of Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow for the BBC at the Grand Theatre.

Really intriguing to see him on the Tuesday: small clubs haven't been his stomping ground for some time now, and to an extent you can tell. Dan Nightingale is the warm-up act who is more comfortable in these surrounds; a quality circuit comic who puts on a really good show.

Michael McIntyre then takes to the stage. It's not a mesmerising or flawless performance by any means, and much of the show consists of him asking the audience to tell him all about what's been going on in Leeds, so that he has some topical material for his TV show later in the week. It brings to mind someone like David Cameron travelling up north and doing his best to click with the quaint northerners. But then, to be fair, McIntyre has a job to do - and there are snippets of extremely well observed material that remind you why he became so popular. And there is something, just something about him, you can just see why he is made for TV. The shiny suit, the shiny hair, even the facial expressions, everything points to TV. You don't want to go all Simon Cowell and use phrases like star quality, but it's along those lines.

And so it proved on the Thursday, at the much bigger venue of the Grand Theatre. He was a consummate pro; the cameras started rolling, he had a job to do, and he did it. Even to the extent of assertively telling the audience to behave for re-takes (an innocent word like "Manchester" can cause an idiot Yorkshireman to boo - it's a bit like Pavlov's dogs - which can prove a problem when you're filming for a TV show). The Library gig had clearly been a useful exercise, and he'd successfully polished the material over the two days preceding the Grand Theatre show.

It was a very good night of comedy. Having said that, the first performer, Jack Whitehall, was the weakest on the night. A pastiche of Russell Brand but less witty. You suspect he'll become a TV personality or celebrity, rather than a top-drawer stand-up. Not great; perhaps he's still in the process of finding his own voice.

But the remainder of the bill went down a storm. Next up was the dry wit of Mike Gunn. His is the kind of deadpan comedy where, on the face of it, the world is a pretty rubbish place: men don't understand women (and vice versa) and we should all just stop pretending to make the effort. But you just know that below the surface there is a warmth pushing to get out (it doesn't).

Next up, Andi Osho was extremely impressive. Her comedy is fresh and edgy but warm-hearted, her charm carries the audience along. She's one to watch, I think.

Then it was Canadian comic Sean Collins: arguably the class act of the evening. Superb. Just brilliant material, and fantastically delivered. He somehow manages to make a British audience warm to him while making digs at his host country. "I love Britain," he says. "Everything is rubbish - but nobody seems to care." (Or something along those lines.) He continues: "This is the only country in the world where you buy a ticket for one form of transport and you end up travelling on something completely different. People holding train tickets are ushered onto buses, and they don't seem to mind." He does have a point.

Ardal O'Hanlon was the headline act. And again, he was extremely good. He's honed his stuff over a number of years now, and you can tell; he's a classy performer. "Someone once gave me a piece of good advice," he says, "which was to live every day like it's your last. And he was right, it's good advice. I always walk around with an oxygen mask on my face and rosary beads in my hand."

8 Aug 2010

Hobsons Manor Ale (4.2% alcohol)

This is a strange one. I've had other Hobsons beers in the past and enjoyed them, but this beer has a slightly unexpected aroma of dampness. Damp like an autumn walk – not wholly unpleasant, just not the freshness you'd expect. A dodgy bottle perhaps? (Following on from my previous post on context, I should point out I sampled this beer after the Little Creatures, in case the contrast in flavours had an effect.)

A strong flavour of roasted peanuts then comes through in the aroma and in the taste. It's an almost overpowering satay-type flavour, perhaps with a touch of lemon or orange zest.

Then something else interesting: I nip into the kitchen, top up my glass (from the same bottle) and eat a square or two of Green & Blacks Maya Gold chocolate. The beer is transformed. More creamy, coffee, caramel-type flavours, generally more rounded in character – and that peculiar dampness is pretty much undetectable.

Little Creatures Pale Ale (5.2% alcohol)

The Little Creatures brewery is based in Fremantle, Western Australia. But interestingly, the Chinook and Cascade hops in this pale ale are sourced from the US as well as from Tasmania. So depending on your level of beer geekery and whether you're a purist when it comes to regionality, you may or may not like the idea of this multinational brew.

Still it'd be a shame if you passed up the chance to try this pale ale, as it's an enjoyable and nicely balanced example. Probably won't satisfy fans of hop bombs: pouring it into the glass you don't get that in-your-face whiff of pine forest; more the clean scent of Christmas tree at the far end of the room. The delicate, faintly floral aroma continues into the flavour, which delivers a fairly light and summery finish.

Little Creatures Pale Ale would be a good choice if you know someone who usually enjoys elegant dry white wines and you want to switch them on to the joys of beer.

4 Aug 2010

Beer and Wine Tasting: Context

You're on holiday in France, feeling more relaxed and content than you have been for months. You sit back and sup the bottle of red you just bought for a couple of euros in the local hypermarche – which seems like the bargain of the century as you taste it alongside some warm freshly baked baguette and tasty local cheeses, taking in the brilliant views. A couple of weeks pass and you reach the end of your holiday, with a couple of cases in the back of your car to take home.

A few days have passed, you're back home, it's a miserable autumn evening, the weather's depressing. It's been a stressful day at work. You excitedly crack open the first of your 24 bottles. You take a sip and… this can't be the same stuff you drank on holiday can it? It tastes… it tastes like it cost a couple of euros. Not such a bargain.

A simplistic way of putting it maybe, but context really does impact on how we experience flavours, even if it's in more subtle ways than in the example above. When you sample a drink, it might be at the end of a bad day; you might have had a great day. You might have tasted the drink alongside 100 other similar drinks at a tasting event; you might have savoured it all on its own in the comfort of your own home. You might have eaten Michelin-starred food with the drink; you might have had it with cheese on toast.

Whenever I see a drink awarded, say, 17.5 marks out of 20, I wonder about the context of the tasting. I wonder about the context of past tastings of similar drinks by the same taster, and how his or her mind recalls them, and how accurately he or she has been able to mentally compare them all. Perhaps on another day that 17.5 could be a 16, or maybe an 18.5?

Such scores can often be a useful guideline of quality, but is it really possible to be so exact? Can we really become so accurate with our palates (and memories) that we can objectively make these comparisons and award such specific scores?

31 Jul 2010

Caffe Shakerato

Leeds is well-known for its bar scene, but its cafe culture isn't quite there yet; there are only one or two really good independent coffee shops in the city centre. The weather doesn't help: much better to sit inside a bar with a couple of beers than outside with raindrops falling in your cappuccino.

Pasta Romagna and La Bottega Milanese are two of my favourite cafes in Leeds. Pasta Romagna, run by the local legend that is Gilda, has been there for donkey's years. Gilda is a feisty old Italian lady who certainly keeps her staff on their toes, shall we say, and is also renowned for her vocal singing. There was even a campaign once for her to be allowed to continue playing her music loudly after a clampdown was threatened. La Bottega, on the other hand, is the new kid on the block. It's run by a young Italian called Alex Galantino and it has the potential to develop a similar cult status in the city.

I recently tried an interesting drink at La Bottega. It's called the Caffe Shakerato.

Ice cold coffee might not sound like the most appealing drink, but it really is good. There is a nice deep bitterness and a good froth from the reaction between the ice and the oils in the coffee beans as it's shaken. It won't replace my regular coffees and espressos (which are also superb at La Bottega), but it's definitely a good novel option every now and then, especially during summer. Well worth a try if you like your espressos. You can read my account in full here.
Photo: crismatthews.com