Saturday, 23 May 2020

Bank Holiday Boozing: Less is More

The key to successful Bank Holiday Boozing is to remember it's a school night.

The day you usually gain for oenological over-indulgence isn't the official Bank Holiday Monday.

Rather, it's the Sunday, as there's no work on the Monday morning.

So you can treat the Sunday just like a Saturday - only with bigger newspapers.

The secret to Bank Holiday Boozing is therefore to recognise that Bank Holiday Monday is not like any other weekend day at all, knowing you can overdo it over dinner on Saturday night then sleep it off until Sunday lunch. Or have a second bottle with your Sunday repast thinking you can sleep it off all through a lazy Sunday afternoon. Or do both and in any event suffer little ill effect. 

No, Bank Holiday Monday is a unique day that offers an opportunity for all-day entertainment that requires a wholly original approach to alcohol that will be unfamiliar to many readers, especially those with a practical knowledge of attitudes to alcohol in Britain.

Because the key to a happy Bank Holiday Monday is Less is More. 

That's right. There's only one rule for Bank Holiday Boozing: Less is More. 

Less alcohol that is. But I don't mean fewer glasses of wine. 

Instead, when you're looking for drinks to partner with your inevitable Bank Holiday barbecue - and in the UK there is really no alternative food choice on a Bank Holiday - look for wines that not only go well with burnt burgers, charred chicken and scorched sausages, but also wines that won't make you fall over before the meat has been thoroughly under-cooked, in accordance with tradition. 

Less alcohol means a low ABV (alcohol by volume measurement) - the percentage figure printed on the label as required by UK law on virtually every sealed vessel containing alcohol. 

Among whites you can find refreshing all day drinking wines offering an ABV of as little as 9%. Among reds, easy drinking starts around 12% while sparkling wine and rosé fall between the two at around 11%.

To make choosing your Bank Holiday wine even easier the New World has largely decided not to make the vinous equivalent of lunchtime session beers, so you can safely confine your search for something appropriate to the wine racks within European shores. 

Old, well-known, even familiar names abound here, yet many may be unfamiliar drinking for many of us nowadays, so it's a great opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with some neglected even long-forgotten, old friends.

Like Frascati. As you'll probably be eating, Italy is as good a place as any to start drinking, with Frascati, Rome's quaffing wine, probably the lightest of all Italian whites.

It's typically clear, very pale and supremely refreshing, sometimes with a slight prickle on the palate. Serve it so cold it's almost frozen and you'd be hard-pushed to realise you weren't drinking Badoit such is the subtlety of its discernible flavour.

That's an observation oft made of Italy's Soave too but relatively recent regulatory increases in quality, especially of the Soave Classico and Soave Superiore denominations, stipulate higher minimum alcohol levels and allow the inclusion of some Chardonnay grapes. Better, riper Soave is scented and nutty, but for everyday gluggability stick to Soave DOC for that lightweight, even anonymous, Summer drinking style.

Because if it's flavour you're after you can look to the shelves of Germany and Alsace and yet another familiar name, Riesling. Long championed by Master of Wine, Jancis Robinson OBE, as one of the great white grapes, unfortunately everyday Riesling - once upon a time often not Riesling at all - previously acquired a very poor reputation.

Thankfully, nowadays plenty of young, dry, authentic Rieslings, particularly from Germany, abound with floral scents and flavours ranging from sharp apple, through allspice to honeyed nectarine. German Rieslings start at just 9% alcohol and don't get that much heavier so can be consumed all day long, while France's Alsace matches them for richness and ripeness on both the nose and palate.

Just one word of caution. Much German Riesling is off-dry or even sweet so if you're unfamiliar with German wine just look for the word trocken on the label, as it means dry, otherwise do check the shelf labels or ask for clarification if it's still unclear.

While we're in Alsace, if you're barbecuing jerk chicken, curry goat or marinated pork ribs, don't overlook Gewürztraminer, whose exotic, even pungent, perfume, plus its strongly flavoured, rich and distinctive spiciness, cut right through hot peppers and chillies like no other white wine.

Staying with the European shelves, for familiar all day Summer sparklers I look no further than Spain's Cava. It's frequently light in weight, usually 11% ABV or so, of a predictable quality level and pretty easy to find a brand to suit your taste. Along with Prosecco, which is surely due a rest, it's also just about the cheapest fizz on the rack so it's easily at its best when drunk young. Unfortunately, better quality Cava doesn't stray very far from Spanish shores, being comparable in price to Champagne while struggling to compete with the home of sparkling wine's name and reputation.

When I'm in Spain, including the Balearic and Canary Islands, I drink very little apart from Cava during daylight hours, only switching to red wine once the sun has set.

Before we consider reds though, a brief foray into rosé wines, and we're not talking Château d'Esclans here, but simple wines to last us through to twilight.

Let's face it, rosé is pink - it's fun, so let's treat it as such and concentrate on the good dry styles suitable for our purposes that include Rosé de Loire and some Spanish rosado made from Garnacha - Grenache as the French have it.

Medium varieties are best left alone, having once been described by Robert Joseph as 'mostly dire', so we'll pass on Rosé D'Anjou and Portuguese rosé as exemplified by slightly frizzante Mateus Rosé, with a particularly dishonourable mention for California's pink Zinfandel, often referred to as Blush, presumably in embarrassment.

Myself, I enjoy the fun of much rosé from Provence, if only for the womanly curves of some of the bottles as with this Maison Castel  from Waitrose - its 13% ABV at the limit of my easy drinking.

All well and good if rosé also tickles your fancy, white wine meets your needs or fizz is the thing to set your taste buds a-tingle. 

But if not, then red wine must be the solution.

All day reds are plentiful across the world but once again it is the traditional wine-making nations of Europe that offer the quickest and easiest selection on supermarket shelves and in off-licence bins - grab some on the way to the beach or the park or nip round the corner for a bottle or two before meeting your socially distanced friend.

No need to scour the shelves, just head straight for the France section and lo and behold, a couple of familiar easy-drinking red names leap out at you: Beaujolais is fresh and aromatic with a lightness of body that means you can drink it at noon until the sun goes down.

Alternatively, and for a bit of class, not that I'm suggesting you indulge in any social climbing, but if you did want to impress your barbecue guests, how about a lovely light red Sancerre, made from delicate Pinot Noir?

Along the shelf in Italy, everyday young Chianti DOCG can be lively, fruity and tangy; all sharp ripe cherries and red berry fruit, sometimes with a hint of bitterness to help you cut through charred meat flavours, barbecue sauces and over-dressed salads.

So long as you're still eating, Italian wine makes for excellent food matching - try cheap and cheerful Valpolicella with plates of traditional Parma ham, salami and Bresaola, and if you are cooking over charcoal remember Valpolicella is also great with sausages, steaks and hamburgers.

Whatever your wine drinking preferences or Bank Holiday boozing plans, you can ensure you enjoy yourself just the right amount and not a drop more simply by recognising that broadly speaking, the lower the ABV the more glasses of wine you can safely drink. 

Choose your wine well and you can enjoy your extra day off from midday to midnight.

Choose badly and it won't just be the barbie that burns out before bedtime.

The Wine Rules: Bank Holiday boozing requires a lighter touch.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

VE Day. Britain Sparkles.

The 75th anniversary celebrations of VE Day remind those of us old enough to have lost a relative in World War II to raise a glass to them: in memoriam Uncle Bobby, of the Fleet Air Arm, died 7th June 1944 (the day after D-Day).

The Ridgeview vineyards sit at the foot of the Susses South Downs

With the May Bank Holiday switched to a Friday to accommodate VE Day the three day weekend begins a day early this week, rather than ending a day late.

So, unlike a normal May Bank Holiday that falls on a Monday, this year we don't have to worry about it being a school night. That and almost all the schools being closed of course - but I'm not having the C word here.

A Friday Bank Holiday gives you three whole hangover days on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Of course if you are of a temperate disposition, this subtle difference will have little effect on you or your drinking habit. Not that I'm suggesting that you have a habit and all that implies.

And if you are of a temperance disposition, what are you even doing here? Keeping your enemies closer than your friends? I suspect so. The Wine Rules aren't for you. Back off, snooper.

Normally I would be recommending lightweight low-alcohol drinking to get you through a long weekend but the commemoration of the end of the war in Europe requires a dash of the unifying patriotism of the allies that defeated the divisive nationalism of the Axis powers.

Which means enjoying the wines made in the UK.

What to choose though? We're not really thought of as a vine-growing nation. England for example is about half a degree north of the typical wine-growing latitudes between 30 and 51 degrees (N).

And the United Kingdom has accounted for a major share of the world's wine imports for centuries. We are actually the world's largest wine importer, bringing in some 1.6 billion bottles every year. Pause for effect. We're drinking circa 32 bottles of imported wine per adult per year before touching so much as a drop of the UK's own wine output.

Almost uniquely amongst winemaking countries, the British buy and drink comparatively little of their own wine. Viticulture is labour intensive and makes our wines very expensive to make. And like all alcohol, wine is also heavily taxed and that acts as a deterrent to would-be local winemakers as much as would-be buyers. 

What's more, winemaking across the nation used to be very much the preserve of enthusiasts, many of whom were hobbyists not dependent on the income from their wine sales for all their livelihood.

Consequently distribution of UK-made wine used to be really poor. Very few wine merchants or supermarkets (by far the biggest retailers of wine in the UK) even stocked wines produced in the UK. Most were sold at the wineries themselves, many of which were also forced by circumstance to be managed as visitor and tourist attractions, or sold their produce only in their own locale. Nowadays its very much the vogue to have a winery-cum-restaurant and wine tours have become part and parcel of the UK travel trade, taking in Dorset, Shropshire, Devon, Cornwall, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire as well as the better-known and best-placed winemaking counties of Sussex and Kent. Even Wales has 28 active vineyards.

Because with wine accounting for more than one-third of our alcohol consumption it made sense for the industry to expand. And it has.

With some 7,000 acres now under vine (albeit small beer still compared to over seven million acres of cereal crops) today we produce almost 16 million bottles of wine ourselves - still just 1% of UK consumption. 

Yet the majority of those millions of bottles are of one, singular wine style at which England in particular excels. 


It can't be called Champagne of course, but to all intents and purposes that's what it is. 

Crafted from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, it's made from the same three grape varieties using the méthode traditionnelle - traditional method - as Champagne. And most of the grapes used are even grown on the same layer of chalk soil that extends geologically beneath our feet all the way from England to Champagne.

To name it correctly, English Sparkling Wine as it is officially designated, is now world class and, fortunately for all of us this Friday, is very much the dominant UK wine style, accounting for almost three-quarters of the wine produced in the isles. 
So there's a lot of it about.

Top of my list, and virtually on my doorstep is Ridgeview Winery, high up on the South Downs of the English county of Sussex. 

The wine names are redolent of Englishness: Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Fitzrovia. Bottles can be found in the food halls of London's top department stores Harrods and Fortnum & Mason, and on the shelves of leading wine merchants like Butlers, Booths and Bibendum, plus England's upmarket supermarket chain, Waitrose, where you can find a good half dozen English Sparkling Wines.

Ridgeview offers all the styles. Grosvenor is a 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc; Fitzrovia a Brut Rosé.

Other notable English producers include Nyetimber, Rathfinny, Chapel Down and organic producer Albury Estates.

Harrods stocks 13 versions of English Sparkling Wine, all from Sussex and Kent but perhaps the largest range is available from pioneering direct sales wine merchant Laithwaites, a family business founded by Tony Laithwaite in Berkshire, that offers 19 English Sparkling Wine choices by the case and also in mixed cases. Tony also makes his own sparkling wine with grapes grown at the Windsor Great Park vineyard that was replanted in 2011 in the shadow of Windsor Castle. As English as it gets.

From Wales, Ancre Hill Estates' Blanc de Noirs (a sparkling biodynamic white wine made from red grapes) may be the pick of the bunch although Montgomery's 2017 Rosé actually took the title of Best Wine in Wales 2019. Who knew there was such a thing?

Unfortunately, a recent attempt to make wine from grapes grown north of the border in my Uncle Bobby's native Fife produced 200 bottles of a white wine described as 'undrinkable'. Even the pioneer behind the venture known as Chateau Largo, Christopher Trotter, admitted the first vintage tasted 'horrible'. 

But it could be worse. Because fizz made from UK-grown grapes wasn't first fermented in the bottle, Champagne-style, until after the end of the Second World War, in the 1950s. 

So however you choose to celebrate or commemorate this VE Day Bank Holiday, please remember that without Uncle Bobby's sacrifice, and that of literally millions of others, instead of raising a glass of English (or Welsh) Sparkling Wine, we could all be forced to drink Sekt.

© 2011 John Alexander