8 Oct 2011

Half-price supermarket wines, double-price Sunday dinners and non-discount Laithwaites wine vouchers

I walked past a pub recently that had a big banner outside which read: "Two-for-one main courses all day Monday to Saturday!"

Imagine if that poster had actually read: "Double-price Sunday dinners every week!" I don't think it'd have had quite the same positive effect, but it would really be saying the same thing.

This week I received the latest mail-shot from Laithwaites Wines, who have some good value wines but who aren't scared to run a promotion or two. In the envelope was a brochure offering various mixed cases of wine, along with a couple of big, shiny vouchers. One was a voucher worth £50! And the other was a voucher worth £10.

Why would anyone opt to use the £10 voucher over the £50 one, you might wonder. Because they're not really vouchers as such: you can only use each one against certain cases of wines in the brochure. The £50 one, for example, could only be used against a selection of £89.99 cases that are actually part of 'Wine Plans' (Laithwaites then send you another case every three months at full price unless you opt out). The thing is though, you can order one of these cases for £39.99 direct from the Laithwaites website, without the voucher.

I don't mean to pick on just Laithwaites: as a nation we seem to have a bit of an obsession with voucher codes and discounts in general. Supermarkets are the experts when it comes to running discounts that aren't always quite as they seem. So-called half-price wines are nothing of the sort: the wines are priced artificially high for a few weeks to enable the dramatic discount. I've found that you usually get better value by choosing a supermarket wine that isn't reduced, than by buying a "half-price" one.

The problem is, all of this makes us more confused about the true value of stuff. Which might suit the companies in the short term (I don't know whether or not it does in the long term), but I'm not sure it's good for consumers.

There's definitely a place for promotions - I like to feel as though I'm getting a bargain as much as the next person. Shopping around can really pay off and you can pick up real bargains every now and then. When supermarkets run 25% off the whole of their wine range, for instance, it's certainly worth buying a case if you'd usually shop there anyway.

But are we becoming a bit too obsessed with the need to feel like we've bagged a discount whenever we buy something? Has the internet, which makes it so easy to compare prices, fuelled this obsession?

Shouldn't we just be happy to pay a fair price for stuff?

2 Oct 2011

Some tasty beer: Sunbeam Ales

These very impressive beers were brewed by Nigel Poustie, a man who lives near us here in Leeds. Having sampled these and several of my brother's ales, I'm fortunate to have tasted some top-notch homebrew lately.

The Honey & Lavender Beer poured with very little head and gave off really fresh and enticing orange and marmalade aromas; the flavour also showed a great fragrance, tasting a touch sweet at first but with a more bitter, crisp finish. Your preconception of a honey and lavender beer might be that it'll be a bit rich, too sweet perhaps or a touch cloying - not the case here at all. Great balance.

Wheat beer isn't always my first choice as a general rule, but this was also brilliant. White pepper and perhaps grapefruit in the aroma, and there's a hint of hoppy grapefruit flavour in the mouth along with a definite spice, reminiscent of chilli or paprika, and a very clean finish. Delicious.

The Special Ale was also very good, again the clean flavours were impressive. As more of a traditional nutty brown ale, the Session Bitter was bound to stand out less than the others - but the exciting thing in this selection is the real flair in creating delicious, clean and balanced flavours in the more experimental brews.

10 Sep 2011

A trip to Yorkshire Sculpture Park

What a place. With the countryside instead of gallery walls as the backdrop, sculptures come alive at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. There are pieces from the likes of Antony Gormley, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore dotted around in the fields, as if they're just sitting there having a picnic. Amazing.

At the moment there's an exhibition by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa (that's one of his in the photo above, with our daughter joining in for a chat) which is just brilliant. If you get chance, go see it: it runs until 22nd January next year. Here are a few other photos from our day out.

18 Aug 2011

Is wine a more homosexual drink than beer?

This tongue-in-cheek thought was triggered today by wine writer Andrew Neather who, in his latest Evening Standard column, said:

"…there remains a more deep-seated suspicion of "expensive" wine among many Brits: a notion that it's a waste of money because you can't really tell the difference between that and the cheap stuff (and that anyone who claims to be able to do so is certainly "elitist", possibly homosexual.) It's ignorant tosh…"

I think he's talking homosexual from a male rather than female point of view here. You're in a pub with your mates, it's your round, and you come back from the bar with a tray of northern Rhône syrahs instead of beers. Even worse, you give the glass a good swirl without thinking and comment on its amazing peppery scent. And you get called gay. (We won't even think about what happens if you buy an even gayer wine like a Provence rosé.)

When you bought a round of craft beers the previous day and did a similar thing, talking with your mates about its hoppiness and its frothy head and its citrussy flavours, they didn't laugh you out of town. You were still a man's man! In a non-gay way!

How would you explain this difference to an alien from outer space, or at least to a non-Brit? Why is beer drinking manly and wine appreciation camp? (Come to think of it, on a related note, why do wine writers sometimes refer to certain wines as being "feminine" in style? Actually, save that thought for another day.)

Cost has something to do with it. You can enjoy the world's best beers for just a few quid, so they're way more accessible to the working man than the really interesting wines, which aren't cheap. So perhaps wine is traditionally associated with showy wealth. But it seems to be a cultural or class-based thing as well as an economic one. Working class people have better bullshitometers than the middle classes – and a lot of nonsense has been talked about wine in the past in order to make it seem more exclusive than it needs to be, so it turned off old-fashioned modest Brits. But we're in a new era now. Wine can be demystified. While not settling for anything less than well-made drinks, we don't need to be aloof or scary.

We're living in a time when it's quite common for people to take out finance to buy an expensive car or to spend £40+ a month on a mobile phone contract. And even if a cheaper second-hand car or a more basic phone would've done the job, they probably won't be called a snob, or homosexual as Andy Neather might put it, for stretching beyond their means to get something better. So why is it snobbish to spend a bit more on wine?

17 Aug 2011

A tour of the newly refurbished City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds

I was lucky enough to go on a tour of the City Varieties today. What a building.

It was built in 1865 and it's a beautiful theatre, one of the last remaining and best preserved Victorian music halls. It's amazing to think Charlie Chaplin and Harry Houdini performed here.

A major refurbishment (costing almost £10m) has now just about been completed. During the building work over the past couple of years, they found lots of items under the floorboards beneath the seats - trivial everyday things like old sweet wrappers, cigarette packets and small glass containers (it's interesting to wonder, did theatre-goers carry medicinal liquids or alcoholic drinks in these little jars?).

These things might seem like unspectacular items, but I think it's really special to think each thing was left by someone who was sitting in the theatre enjoying a show at some point in the last hundred years or so, perhaps smoking and drinking as they watched a show in this beautiful gas-lit room, their presence frozen in time.

And I learned some more exciting news - the Swan pub next door to City Varieties (which has also been given a refurb) is almost ready to reopen - and it's going to be run by Leeds Brewery. It seems very fitting they'll be running this old coaching inn next to this great old music hall. Although they're a young company, they are carrying on the great brewing traditions established by Joshua Tetley here in Leeds. So with a respectful nod to the past, this old street in Leeds is all set to embark on an exciting new chapter.

16 Jul 2011

Michael Broadbent and a whiff of merde

The award for tasting note of the month has to go to veteran Decanter columnist Michael Broadbent. In his column in the magazine's August issue, this is how Broadbent describes Louis Jadot's 1999 Charmes-Chambertin wine:

"Though a long-time admirer of Jadot," Broadbent reflects, "I was disappointed. It was showing some maturity; nose low-keyed, slightly meaty, with a whiff of merde. I thought it was better on the palate: sweet, silky, mature."

5 Jul 2011

The War of Terroir: Beer vs Wine

Wine writer Tim Atkin triggered a debate on Twitter yesterday about beer and wine. Although he loves both drinks, he believes wine is more complex, is better suited to food and has a greater sense of place. Some beer fans said they disagreed – and so far I've seen one blogpost in response arguing that terroir does exist in beer.

I'll leave the complexity and food matching arguments (which I touched on here) for another day, but for now I have to say I agree with Atkin on his point about sense of place, or terroir.

What is terroir? Put simply it's the impact that the physical conditions of a specific location have on the grapes that are grown there. So the character of the wine in the bottle will reflect the character of the terroir (to some extent – many other factors such as grape varieties, the use of oak and other winemaker interventions play a big part too). There are so many different aspects specific to a vineyard's location that are said to affect the grape: the minerals in the soil; wind; rainfall; levels of sunlight; altitude; differences in day and night time temperatures. This is partly why wine, old world wine in particular, is often referred to by location rather than by grape type; the location is synonymous with the wine. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja and so on. Just a mention of the words Bordeaux and Burgundy immediately conjure up images of certain types of wines. (For a further exploration of terroir, try here or here.)

Is the same true of beer? I don't think so. Not to the same extent. There are exceptions, but as a general rule a much more useful way of categorising beer is by style rather than by origin. Beer people tend to talk about porters, stouts, pale ales, lagers, bitters; less so London, California, Buxton, New South Wales or wherever. Yes, certain types of beer have traditionally tended to predominate in certain places, but overall with beer it's more a case of anything goes, hence less of a link to the physical locality.

Also, terroir in wine is said to be a very localised thing. You can get two vineyards within metres of each other that produce wines of different character when all else is equal. I'm no expert on either winemaking or brewing, but by its nature, brewing beer doesn't appear to be so intrinsically tied to the specifics of the land.

That's not to say it's a good or a bad thing, or even how significant it is. A lot of drinkers probably don't really care where the drink was made or if the local environment affected what it tastes like, they just know what they like. It's also debatable how much the concept of terroir is exaggerated, like a kind of placebo effect, a desire on the part of the wine lover to feel the soul of a place as they drink its wine. This is a powerful inclination when you really love wine.

It's also worth pointing out that terroir is not the sole reason for wines being very identifiable by region: in order to qualify for local denomination status, winemakers often have to adhere to strict rules that govern things like the types of grape varieties they are allowed to use. This is where human activity impinges on pure terroir. But nevertheless, in new world areas where there are no such rules, winemaking areas still show their distinct characters in the wine.

But beer fans shouldn't feel wholly negative about all this. Firstly, it shows that the beer world enjoys the freedom of the new world. Brewers can make what they like, where they like, and this leads to radical levels of experimentation, pushing at the boundaries of beer. Loads of new British breweries seem to be using exotic hops lately – which might not express much in the way of the terroir of the brewery, but it can produce some very tasty and interesting beer. Secondly, this isn't to say that beer can't ever have terroir. Perhaps if breweries really started to think local in every sense, a growing sense of terroir could develop further. The idea of vintages is already part of some beers, so why not take it one step further? More use of local or wild yeasts and local hops and of telling us how the local water plays its part. From a marketer's point of view as well as a drinker's, it could be a savvy move.

Also, all of this isn't to say that beer isn't hugely important to local communities. It is. But more in a social and cultural sense than a physical one. Like wine, beer brings people together; it melds communities; it smoothes out the rougher edges of life. And it can taste great. But for true terroir, it doesn't yet come close to wine.

2 Jul 2011

Enjoying some local Yorkshire Food at Swillington Organic Farm, Kirkstall Deli Market and Leeds Loves Food

I've enjoyed some great local food events here in Leeds over the past couple of weeks or so.

I visited Swillington Organic Farm as part of an event put on by Harvey Nichols - I got to have a look around the farm before enjoying a meal cooked by Harvey Nics' chefs accompanied by wine from Leventhorpe Vineyard just down the road. Despite the vineyard being as far north as Leeds, I was really impressed by the seyval blanc in particular, a crisp, bone-dry white wine. It might be surprising to hear of a vineyard in Yorkshire, but apparently centuries ago vines were grown at Kirkstall Abbey and even as far north as Hadrian's Wall!

Having a wander around Swillington Farm really brought home how, in cities at least, the people who produce our food and those who buy it have become so distanced, especially with the rise of the supermarkets. We buy stuff without sparing much thought for where it came from. It's a massive change from our grandparents or great-grandparents' generations, who had nowhere near the choice we are lucky enough to have, but at the same time they surely had more of a real connection to where their food came from, especially given more local specialists (butchers, bakers, greengrocers, milkmen etc) existed in those days. 

And then last weekend it was a visit to the magnificent Kirkstall Abbey (pictured above and top - a spectacular 850 years old and one of the best preserved abbeys in the country) for the Kirkstall Deli Market, where there was a good amount of local producers selling their wares - seafood from Whitby, various jams and chutneys and fresh fruit, meat from Swillington Farm, plus the likes of Dough, fish'n'chips with a twist from Fish&, and booze from Latitude. Also pretty sure we spotted Leeds singer Corinne Bailey Rae having a day out there too. A really good event in stunning surroundings - would recommend any locals to visit the next one on 30th July.

Lastly, today was the Leeds Loves Food festival at Millennium Square in the city centre - great weather, absolutely packed, and again the brilliant thing about it was the number of small independent businesses on show. The recent Taste of London event came in for a bit of flak with some saying it was overly corporate, but you couldn't say that about Leeds Loves Food, which seemed to have a really good mix.

21 Jun 2011

An Argentinian Wine Tasting with Gaucho's director of wine Phil Crozier

This was a great event at Gaucho's Leeds restaurant, not just because of the wines, but also thanks to the knowledge and enthusiasm of our host, Phil Crozier. He has that great combination of being extremely knowledgeable and passionate about a subject but with an ability to speak about it without pretentiousness.

He's an interesting character: having started out as a musician and then going into sound engineering, he sort of drifted into the wine trade. He modestly says a lot of it was down to being in the right place at the right time: it was the mid-90s and Argentinian wine exports were just taking off, enabling him to transform Gaucho's wine list. Phil says he essentially worked through a list of wine importers, going from A-Z, and ended up with a room packed full of sample bottles to work through all on his own. Not knowing much about wine at the time didn't stop him: the best way to learn was to taste, taste and taste again. Here he is now as a successful restaurant chain's head of wine and a leading authority on Argentinian wine.

On to the wine. This tasting was all about showing what Argentina can do aside from Malbec. Not because there's anything wrong with the country's Malbec, far from it, but to show that the country isn't a one-trick pony and to highlight a growing appreciation in Argentina that different grape varieties can thrive in different areas.

We tasted five wines, one white and four reds, and my two favourites were a Cabernet Franc and a Tannat. Two varieties that are less common than Malbec on the supermarket shelves - certainly in the Argentina section - but I think they showed really encouraging signs that there is a hell of a lot more to come from Argentinian wine.

Catena Cabernet Franc 2008, from the Uco Valley in Mendoza, shows the kind of elegance that Argentinian wines can achieve: sprigs of mint and eucalyptus on top of fresh red fruit, creating a really fresh, balanced mouthful. No surprise the 2009 vintage won gold at the recent Decanter World Wine Awards.

Probeta Tannat 2010, from fruit grown at an altitude of 1,750 metres up in the region of Salta, is a beguiling wine with herbal aromas you can't quite put your finger on - rosemary and thyme and sage, perhaps, with some blueberry fruit. The mouthfeel is a touch firm - Phil pointed out you get a sense of green tea on the finish due to the tannin - so this could soften into an even more impressive wine in a couple of years. He also points out that in Salta you have perhaps 50 days extra ripening compared to Bordeaux, giving this tough, temperamental grape more time to ripen into something beautiful. He believes Tannat may well represent the future for the north of Argentina, and with this one I can see why. Really, really good.

The other three grape varieties we sampled were Torrontes, Petit Verdot and Bonarda. Seleccion G Michel Torino Torrontes 2010 was a bit too richly perfumed for my personal taste, but many will love the freshness and floral flavours of elderflower and slightly sweet lime marmalade. Emma Zuccardi Bonarda, another Decanter 2011 medal winner, smelt quite big and alcoholic in the glass, with a menthol aroma too. In the mouth it was packed with jammy fruit that was a touch sweet for my taste but nevertheless a good example of what this originally Italian grape, the second most planted in Argentina, can create. Finally the Pinca Decero Petit Verdot 2006 was a big dark wine with stocky legs that stuck to the inside of the glass when you gave it a swirl - a real winter warmer. When speaking about the aroma, Phil evoked childhood memories of pencil shavings in the classroom, and he was spot on.

It was a really inspiring, enjoyable tasting.

12 Jun 2011

Craft Beer Labels

I bought these bottles at Beer Ritz in Leeds. It's noticeable how a lot of good beers have really nicely designed labels now.

The Italia, in the centre of the picture, is the result of a collaboration between English brewery Thornbridge (based in Bakewell) and Italian brewery Birrificio Italiano (based in Marinone, just east of Turin). A lovely fresh pilsner style beer with a slight zesty hoppiness, chilled right down it made for a very nice early evening drink back at home after a warm day out. Invigorating stuff, well made, tasty.

9 Jun 2011

Moncaro Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico 2010, £4.99 (Waitrose)

You'll see the glass is empty in the photo, which is all you need to know with this one - this bottle won't last long. An ideal easy drinking midweek white for spring/summer time, especially in terms of value for money. I bought it this evening as a cheap bottle off the cuff, without expecting too much, when I called into Waitrose in Leeds for some pizza on the way home from work.

Fresh, pure, dry, pretty uncomplicated and with an almost olive oil-like texture. In fact both the flavour and texture bring to mind a little olive oil with a dash of fresh lemon juice stirred in - so it's a very good food wine.

I've just referred back to the 'Top 5 Italian White Wines from Waitrose Spring Collection' on Vinissima, and I'm not surprised to see this one on there.

It is a bargain - and in fact I've just noticed the 2009 is only £4.74 per bottle on the Waitrose website.

Moncaro Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico 2010, Italy

7 Jun 2011

Working on a new drinks menu at Dough Bistro, Leeds

At the weekend I was lucky enough to get a sneak taster of some of the new dishes from the June menu at Dough Bistro here in Leeds. Every single dish I tried hit the mark: perfectly fresh, local ingredients, skillfully cooked.

I was discussing the subject of wine and beer matching with chef/owner Luke Downing, who's looking to revamp his drinks menu. We made one or two interesting findings, and I'm in the process of thinking about some more potentially interesting matches for his food.

A light blonde ale with a subtle hoppiness worked very nicely with a lovely dish of hake and samphire, while a brown ale proved to be an unexpected top performer with various different dishes, perhaps showing the great versatility of that classic type of beer. As I ponder some more matches, I've got plenty of food for thought.

6 Jun 2011

Beer and drama: Breaking Bad and some homebrewed Amarillo ale

There have been some outstanding US television dramas over recent years. Breaking Bad is the latest we've discovered. A really brilliant show, in the classic thriller style but a very human drama at its heart. The main character Walt has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and he decides to produce and sell crystal meth so that his family aren't left bankrupt when he dies. Like all the great recent US dramas, it intelligently travels through the hazy shades of grey in the human condition, leaving the viewer to make up his or her own mind. Highly recommended.

Given that the Breaking Bad DVDs were a present from my brother Matthew and his wife Angela, it was nice to accompany the conclusion of Season 2 with one of their latest homebrews: Amarillo Easy (4.1% abv). It was appropriately brewed with an American hop, Amarillo (like the O'Hanlon's Stormstay ale I enjoyed recently - which incidentally also contained crystal malt... not crystal meth).

And the Amarillo Easy was a great match for the drama, showing the verve of a New World pale ale but with a welcome lightness of touch, plus just a hint of that faint horse blanket aroma reminiscent of a good Belgian ale, all balanced out with the sweetness of caramelised brown sugar and a satisfyingly long finish.

Beer and drama.

27 May 2011

Balance – is it as important in beer as it is in wine?

I've had a few beers lately that I've really enjoyed and that, when I thought about it, shared a common characteristic: balance. Or drinkability, for want of a better word. Tasty, refreshing and with sufficient interest, but not hitting you over the head like a lunatic and saying how manly they are.

With beer, you could draw a straight line and write the word 'challenging' at one end and 'drinkable' at the other. Now I might be totally wrong, but I suspect there's a fashion at the moment in the craft beer world for stuff that errs more towards the challenging or extreme. Some of these beers can be really interesting to drink - but personally I sometimes find the first sip is the one I enjoy the most. And that's not ideal. After three or four gulps of a more extreme beer my palate can feel like someone's been at it with a steam-powered wallpaper remover. Interesting flavours, challenging, but not something I'd necessarily want to drink regularly. Perhaps this kind of beer is playing to a macho I-can-eat-a-hotter-vindaloo-than-you mentality. You can't imagine many women being daft enough to bother with some of these drinks beyond the first sip.

Of course it depends on the occasion; there's a time and place for a more extreme beer. And it's worth noting the caveat that more extreme beers can still be in balance; choc-full of flavour but with all notes singing in harmony.

But the beers I tend to enjoy most are the ones where everything is nicely in balance and that I don't tire of after a few gulps. And by that I don't mean boring; it's easy to confuse the idea of balance with lack of flavour. It's not that at all - sometimes it might even be the addition of more flavours, sometimes it might be fewer, to strike the balance. A food analogy would be using a pinch or two less of chilli powder to tone down the spice, or perhaps adding a squeeze or two of lemon to freshen it up.

Like anything sensual, it's of course subjective to some extent - one drinker's idea of balance won't be the same as another drinker's. Some of us prefer more bitter flavours, for example. It's all about personal taste, as well as mood, context, what you're eating (if anything) - the time of year, even. Which are some of the things that make food and drink so interesting.

So what were the finely balanced beers I've had recently that slipped down so easily? The first was the acclaimed El Bulli chef Ferran Adria's beer, Inedit, brewed by Estrella Damm – nothing exceptional you might think on trying it, but an intriguingly light mouthfeel, and just so damn tasty and refreshing. Perhaps a touch sweeter than I'd regularly go for and it may not be earth shattering but, as was intended with this brew, it's very food-friendly.

Another very nice beer I had recently was Stormstay Premium Ale, from O'Hanlon's Brewery in Devon, which is also a beer that I suspect might not satisfy the label drinkers looking to tick off the latest new world hop bomb. It struck that fine balance between hops and malt, with a subtle caramel depth underpinning the fresh green hop flavours. I really enjoyed this beer. If it was a stranger at a party it wouldn't skip quickly from person to person and talk about itself as certain other craft beers might; instead it'd be an understated but likeable presence with a touch of class. I thought it had a nice balance and a slight zip of acidity reminiscent of a good sparkling wine.

Going back to the fashion for extreme beers: it does seem to be specific to beer. Wine writers seem to be more preoccupied with elegance and structure. The reason for this difference, I'm not sure. It could quite simply be that when we drink a glass of beer or a glass of wine, we're looking for different things, and the difference in the tone of coverage reflects that. Perhaps an extreme IPA is only meant to be enjoyed for a few sips - that's the whole point, it's not designed for session drinking.

Or another theory could be that the craft beer revolution - for want of a less tabloidy term - is at an earlier phase than that of wine drinking (if that's the case it's ironic, given the long history of beer brewing and drinking in Britain). Perhaps the over-the-top late-hopped IPAs or quadruple imperial black quadruple chocolated stouts (I exaggerate) are the beer equivalent of the over-oaked chardonnays or the harsh one-dimensional sauvignon blancs wine lovers tired of to some extent in the 1990s and early-2000s, and beer fashions will evolve in much the same way over time. If this is the case, some classy but currently underrated more traditional British and Belgian ales, for instance, might enjoy a resurgence as beer drinkers become weary of yet another new wave British or American brew. When I drank a couple of Rochefort ales recently I was thinking what classy brews they were.

It's all about time and place. Sometimes the grapefruity hit of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc or an American IPA just hits the spot, just as a gin and tonic or a really very hoppy pale ale does, but at other times the moment calls for a deep, mellow porter by the fireside, or a savoury, herby syrah from the Northern Rhone. More often you're going to want the over-the-top hoppy pale ale as an aperitif as you would the G&T; the less extreme ales will more likely do you for a meal or a session.

But if beer wants to catch up with wine as a respected match for food, I think there might just need to be a slight shift in emphasis towards balance. Good Italian wine is often so very food-friendly thanks to its pure fruit flavours and fresh acidity (not to mention its sense of place), and it doesn't need to shout about itself. Over-oaked fruit bomb wines, on the other hand, are less likely to complement food quite so easily. I'm certainly not saying it's impossible to match foods with drinks that have extreme flavours, but it is more tricky.

The key point is that there's a time and a place for any well-made drink. But if beer wants to gain more respect at the dining table, and among drinkers generally, I'd say balance is an important thing to bear in mind in the long run. The craft beer movement will struggle to win over set-in-their-ways Stella drinkers on the one hand or set-in-their-ways Bordeaux drinkers on the other if it tries too hard and veers too far towards the extreme.

*The picture at the top is a pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord on cask and some mini fish'n'chips. Lovely.
*Anyone in Leeds reading this can buy a 75cl bottle of Inedit from Latitude Wine for just under a fiver, or from Harvey Nichols for just over a fiver.

23 May 2011

Supermarkets: bringers of affordable food & drink to the masses, or unethical corporate giants?

I chipped in to an interesting mini-debate on twitter yesterday about supermarkets.

Daniel Primack of Around Wine said: "I've never underst'd why wine writers cover s'mkt wine. Worst case ppl stop buying in s'market and buy from Indy."

A very valid point. Wine writer and Saturday Kitchen presenter Tim Atkin replied: "Partly because very hard to buy from the bottle by indies unless you live nearby. And 80% of wine sold there."

I chipped in: "Tricky one, but plus-point of s'mkt recs is steering casual buyers to more interesting buys & without patronising them."

I also made the comparison of millionaire celebrity chefs preaching to the public to buy organic chicken. Yes, in an ideal world battery chickens would simply not exist and everyone in the country who eats meat would buy free-range, organic, or at least local. But the principle of someone who is very wealthy and privileged advising those who are neither, about their moral judgments, is on shaky ground. After all it's much easier to take 'ethical' purchasing decisions when you're rich enough to do so. When every penny counts, your child's nutrition will probably come above the welfare of the chicken. And poor people who can't afford one car, never mind two, or one foreign holiday in their whole lifetime, never mind two every year, aren't preaching to celeb chefs about how they could look to reduce their carbon footprints.

Us wine lovers also need to face up to another troublesome issue: just how sustainable is wine full-stop, whichever retailer you buy it from? Just 750ml of liquid (which might have been produced mainly by low-paid workers) in individual bottles that have been shipped across the world must have a sizeable carbon footprint. But that's another issue.

I totally agree with Daniel Primack's fundamental point that no-one has to buy any wine (or meat) in the supermarket – as he says, there are plenty of decent £7 wines in the independents and, actually, you might probably get more for your money that way. I believe in supporting local, independent businesses where you can. The local businessperson has a passion for what they're selling, they live where they do business, and as a result they care about quality rather than just making money. The independents will also pay their fair share of business taxes, unlike the corporations, and will be focal points of local communities. What we do when those same independents become successful multinationals because we've all supported them, again, is another interesting issue…

But going back to supermarkets, the two top concerns for most people are price and convenience when they buy food and drink. Not everyone treats wine any differently from all the other brands available in the supermarket – it's only the wine buffs who spend many of their waking moments thinking about the stuff, who would enjoy browsing online or in a local independent (if they're lucky enough to have one) to get the more interesting and unusual bottles. For everyone else, if they can lob a couple of recognisable and consistent £5 bottles into their trolleys during their weekly shop, why would they go to the extra cost and inconvenience to shop at an independent? Because if they did, it would mean either a) going several miles out of their way just to get their couple of bottles of wine for the week, or b) spending extra time online to buy their wine (with the two bottles costing say £7 each at the independent, so £14, plus a say £7 delivery charge, so £21 for two decent bottles).

I'm playing devil's advocate. I don't earn much money, yet I'm still able to take the extra effort to buy ethical meat and more interesting wines where I can (but by no means every time, admittedly), from independent retailers. But that doesn't mean I think everyone else could do. In an ideal world, yes, and I agree with the basic point that the wine trade should do what it can to encourage independents over supermarkets. And not just the wine trade.

But in the current climate more than ever, us wine geeks need to remember that although it's just simple alcoholic grape juice inside the bottle, we all look at the stuff very differently.

10 May 2011

Pasta, English asparagus and Greek white wine, Domaine Gerovassiliou Malagousia 2009

Pasta with English asparagus (from Leeds' Kirkgate Market), some other veg, a slosh of white wine, olive oil, garlic and basil. Stirred through with a cheeky slice of butter (I'm not a purist) and served with a fresh white wine from Greece - the one that was thrown in with the pasta.

Nice to drink something that isn't an 'international' variety: this is made from the ancient Malagousia grape, its freshness zinging from the glass, as vibrant as a clear blue sea beneath old white-washed houses.
It won a Decanter Gold Medal and was awarded Best Value White Wine of the Year by the Wine Gang.

Funny how your eating and drinking habits change with the weather. Spring has arrived.

Domaine Gerovassiliou Malagousia 2009, Laithwaites, currently £8.99 a bottle reduced from £13.99

8 May 2011

My Wedding Day

I got married! Which is why I've been a bit absent from here lately, but I'm back now.

An amazing day, shared with our loved ones. We won't forget it.

To cap it all off, we were extremely lucky to have some very talented people on hand to make it even more special…

We genuinely felt privileged to have Luke Downing (of the exceptional Dough Bistro) creating our food. Slow-cooked Yorkshire short-horn beef and New Moon (Leeds) ale stew, with roast potatoes and Yorkshire Blue cheese, was as sublime as it sounds. As was the non-meat option: vegetables in Woodlesford (Leeds) white wine, coriander and tomatoes, with wild rocket and parmesan. Again, fantastic. And later an amazing evening buffet… all despite the non-existent kitchen facilities at our (nevertheless beautiful) venue.

My eldest brother Matthew brought a couple of kegs of fantastic beer he'd brewed especially for our wedding: a pilsner and an ale. Much as the words evening buffet don't adequately describe Luke's creations, the term homebrew goes nowhere near describing Matthew's beers. Really brilliant; craft ales of a commercial standard, but brewed especially for us on our big day. Extra special. 

For our sparkling wine we went for Roche Lacour 2007 from Limoux in the south of France (from Laithwaites). Made in the traditional champagne method but without the razzmatazz of the champagne name. Gorgeous stuff.

With the meal, our red wine was Capucine, Les Ollieux from Corbieres in the south of France; the white was the Naked Grape Riesling from the Pfalz in Germany.

Also a special word for our brilliant photographer Mark Tattersall, who crafted incredible images despite the piercing light and crazy winds; and also our DJ Ossie - who provided a memorable end to the night, after a very memorable day.

23 Mar 2011

Beer Ritz Is Back!

Great news for beer fans in Leeds and beyond - Beer Ritz is back from the dead!

Zak Avery announced on twitter today that the store is open once again, having closed its doors last week seemingly for good. Here's hoping this gem in Far Headingley is here to stay.

The Leeds skies are lit up with long-awaited sunshine, Easter is coming, Pulp are headliners at this year's Leeds Music Festival; the season of rebirth. Welcome back Beer Ritz.

17 Mar 2011

Watch Your Language

Language is a funny thing. I mentioned in a recent blog post how the word chav has entered English in recent years. Who first said the word? Where did it come from?

Language constantly changes - words go in and out of fashion, new words appear, existing words change their meaning. If we get annoyed by this we're kind of missing the point - after all, if language never evolved, we'd still all be talking like cavemen. Or talking like whoever came before the cavemen. Cavemen were probably saying the same thing.

In the late-90s I think, we had the rise, literally, of the so-called Australian inflection - the thing where people raise the intonation in their voice at the end of a sentence, even when it's not a question. That was apparently due to the popularity of Australian and American TV dramas.

And remember the Chilean miners' crisis a few months ago? As well as thinking about what a truly horrific experience it must have been for the miners, I was also left confused as to why the newsreaders started saying Chill-ay-an halfway through, instead of Chill-ee-an. Who gave the order?

Remember Slob-o-dan Milosevic? Now he's Sl'bodan. And Benjamin Netanyahu? He's Bin-yam-een. Then Haiti's capital Port-au-Prance became Port-au-Prince - and back again. They never decided on that one. Self-promoting was then renamed social networking, around the time people stopped saying Hi and said Hey instead.

Margaret Thatcher made a speech as prime minister back in the 1980s when she said: "There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families." It's now twenty-odd years later, and the same philosophy has been rebranded as the big society. From no such thing, to big! Language is a funny thing.

15 Mar 2011

A sad week for Leeds drinkers: Beer Ritz and Oddbins close their doors for the last time

It's a sad week for beer and wine drinkers in Leeds. First of all, the news came that two of the city's four Oddbins shops – Albion Street and Headingley – are among the 39 Oddbins stores around the UK being closed down (the Chapel Allerton and Street Lane stores are apparently remaining open). And then came the completely unexpected news today that specialist beer shop Beer Ritz, managed by beer writer Zak Avery, has ceased trading. In fact the term 'ceased trading' doesn't do it justice. Beer Ritz is something of a legend, with an incredible range of beers and truly knowledgeable staff: time has been called at a party no-one wanted to end.

Oddbins in general has come in for a lot of flak over recent years, with several wine writers pointing the finger in particular at the chain's previous owner, French company Castel (which bought Oddbins in 2002 and sold it three years ago), for presiding over its downfall. Writing in the Observer back in July 2008, Tim Atkin called Castel's ownership of Oddbins "a disaster". He said: "Most of the good buyers have left, the range has been reduced, prices have increased and many of the famously enthusiastic, over-qualified shop managers have set up on their own or moved to other companies. There are still good people at Oddbins - not least the two remaining English wine buyers - but the business is a mess."

From personal experience, I'd like to reiterate: there are still good people at Oddbins. As a relatively regular shopper at the Albion Street branch, I can say the team there are absolutely superb: full of enthusiasm, taking pride in what they're doing, keen to engage with customers, knowledgeable. But… the range in the store was at times patchy, and pricing has been a problem. Offering 20% off if you buy six wines gives the impression (true or not) that you're paying over the odds for a single bottle, and that's a major problem for city centre stores aiming to attract regular one and two-bottle purchases. And it has to be said the growing empire of supermarkets over the past decade or two must also have been a huge problem for stores like Oddbins. We're all buying everything in supermarkets and online. Why take a detour to a wine shop when you can lob in a couple of buy-one-get-one-frees into your supermarket trolley, along with every other consumer product you might ever need, on your weekly shop? We're giving a bottle of wine the same amount of respect as a ready meal.

With Oddbins, if Atkin and others are right then it's the same old story of mismanagement at the top resulting in pain for those on the shop floor. Those who've been doing a fine job, especially given the difficult circumstances, are the ones who are now losing their jobs. A theme of our times. And it's more than their jobs. You only have to read this account from a member of the team at Beer Ritz to realise that. You only have to speak to a member of staff at Oddbins in Leeds city centre to realise it: they care about what they do.

There seems to be a big appetite for high-quality, interesting and varied drinks in Leeds, and there are several very good independent bars and local breweries. You'd think that a specialist drinks shop should thrive in the city. You just have to hope that independents like Latitude can find a formula for continued success. Because other than them, in the city centre we only really have Gerry's Wines & Spirits, Harvey Nichols and M&S with dedicated alcohol sections offering more than the usual suspects.

In the meantime, the staff from Beer Ritz and Oddbins should get together over a beer at North Bar, form a dream team and open a new wine and beer store of which Leeds can be proud. Because a future of supermarkets and the internet, and little else, is not an appealing one.

26 Feb 2011

Monkey Poo Coffee! Philippine Alamid Kopi Luwak (£14.99/50g, Sea Island Coffee)

I was sent a sample of this famous (notorious?!) coffee recently. It's the stuff that gets eaten by monkey or raccoon-type creatures called civets - a relative of the mongoose - who like the sweet taste of the berries. It then ferments in their stomach juices where it's partially digested, they poo it out, and then it's gathered up from their poo on the jungle floor, washed (the packaging stresses thoroughly, thank god) and dried, before being roasted as normal.

Jack Nicholson drinks this stuff in the film The Bucket List, in which he and his friend (Morgan Freeman) are both terminally ill and they go on a road trip armed with a list of experiences to try before they die.

It's not cheap at all, but it's a nice coffee, and good for novelty value. I tried the pre-ground stuff and prepared it simply in a cafetiere. A subtle, slightly smoky aroma and a fairly earthy flavour (which I suppose you might expect!), it reminded me of some Ethiopian (non-monkey poo) coffee I had recently at Opposite in Leeds' Victoria Quarter. That was quite light-bodied, almost like a cross between tea and coffee, and probably best drunk without milk to get the subtle aromas.

Philippine Alamid Kopi Luwak

Chavs: Scum or Scapegoats?

Nothing to do with food or wine this, just something interesting I've noticed lately - how the word chav has increasingly entered common speech. Not just among schoolkids, but among adults who put themselves across as otherwise intelligent, broad-minded people. It's used on social media, in blogs, on twitter. And I wondered, why is there something about the word that doesn't sit quite right? When someone who's quite well-off uses the word, why does it seem just a bit unpleasant? Is it an acceptable word to use or not? Is it just harmless snobbery, if there is such a thing, or is it something more nasty? And then I noticed there's a book coming out later this year entitled 'Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class'. So, is chav-bashing the demonisation of the working class?

The joke seems to be: chavs are unemployed, or at least poor, lacking in class, and they all dress the same, and eat and drink the same things (as if the middle classes don't); they don't have much money or taste. That seems to be the joke. You read stuff on twitter along the lines of, "Ha ha, I just saw someone in a tracksuit who hasn't got a job like I've got, they don't do the civilised things I do, what a loser." The Top Gear school of satire.

Maybe using the word is a bit of a giveaway of your own politics. You're skating over the fact that the person in the tracksuit might not have enjoyed the same upbringing, the same life chances, you had. An insult for our 1980s-style times. Previously it was the Irish, blacks, gays, more recently asylum seekers and Muslims, now it's chavs.

Perhaps when we hear the word chav in 20 years' time, we might cringe a bit, like when we see a clip from a 1970s sitcom and the middle class characters are spouting casual racism about their next-door neighbours.

Or is it not so bad? Is it a harmless nickname for people who are lazy, antisocial, aggressive, uncivilised? Perhaps also it depends how you use the word?

But even if you say you're using the word against a certain type of person who doesn't work and doesn't apparently contribute much to society – isn't that still a bit nasty? Are you naturally morally superior to them? If you'd had their opportunities, their school life, been born to their parents, had their home life, done their jobs… who would you be?

19 Feb 2011

A Trip to Aldi: Ramon Lopez Murillo Rioja Reserva 2005 (£5.99) and Finchley's Ales Golden Pale Ale

A trip to B&Q on a Saturday afternoon - who could resist calling into Aldi next-door and taking a look around its random selection of goods? Especially its alcohol section, with bizarre looking bottles of Grappa from holidays past and intriguing cans of 'premium lager'.

I came away with a bottle of Rioja, a bottle of Aldi's own Golden Pale Ale and a bottle of Wychcraft Blonde Beer. So all in all I was quite restrained. I've had the Wychcraft Blonde before, so I was more interested to try the wine and the pale ale.

I found the pale ale a bit of a strange one, with a bittersweet flavour and an aftertaste that I personally didn't enjoy. It actually reminds me of Desperados a bit, which isn't a brilliant thing for me - I realise Desperados has a bit of a cult following (it's a beer flavoured with tequila and other stuff like citric acid and sugar) but it's not one of my guilty pleasures. And I was expecting a pale ale, not an alcopop/beer hybrid.

But I've enjoyed the Rioja. I suppose £6 isn't the absolute cheapest of cheapsville - there were one or two bottles of red around the £3 mark in Aldi - but you still might not expect great things. But it's nice. Perhaps it helps that for some unknown reason I've not had a Rioja for a while, so maybe I'm more forgiving because I was ready for one. But there's a pleasant nose of cherries, plums and rosemary, with a thin twist of sweet cigar smoke. That's followed up by more cherries and herbs in the mouth, with a good acidity that keep things fresh. A decent and very easy drinking glass of wine. And a nice softness to it that you only get from an aged wine that's had the chance to grow into its own skin.

5 Feb 2011

St Hallett Barossa Riesling 2009 (£4, Co-op)

This is a real bargain.

Flinty on the nose, minerals, rocks baking in sunlight. In the mouth, sherbert lemons and pear drops minus the sickly sweetness, with a waxy edge. A shaving of coconut on the finish.

Grown-up traditional lemonade. An early evening refresher, sweeping away the cobwebs of the day. At this price, snap it up.

16 Jan 2011

Monte La Sarda Garnacha 2009 (£7.49, Oddbins)

This is a really, really good wine for the price, from Bajo Aragón in Spain, on the outskirts of Zaragoza. I don't know what Oz Clarke thinks of it, but I strongly suspect he'd be a big fan, given that he loves the upfront crunchy fruit flavours of a good Spanish garnacha. This one's got an almost chewy texture, lovely liquoricey undertones and the flavour just lingers in the mouth.

With wine tasting notes, you can often find that the points of reference are the kinds of things you've never actually tasted. Rose petals, violets, sweaty saddles, petrol, pithy citrus fruits from the rolling Tuscan hills. Well, this garnacha reminded me of black jacks. And I say that as a compliment - it's bloody lovely stuff. But it made me think of those dark, sticky sweets that stuck to your back teeth in the 80s.

It's worth noting this wine's even better value if you buy a case of six from Oddbins (the case can be mixed) - it's then just £5.99 a bottle. I think you'd do well to fine a better sub-£6 wine.
As Oz himself said of Spanish garnacha: "You don't talk about [it] - you just say bloody hell that's good... let's have some more!"

Monte La Sarda 2009, Spain
£7.49 (£5.99 when you buy six)