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Talking Wine

November 2017

Scientists have developed a grape-free wine made by cloning hundreds of chemical compounds. Their current project is recreating a Pinot Noir which is made from a combination of ethanol, water, sugar, amino acids and a host of chemical compounds that give taste, body and aroma. This all sounds a bit far-fetched and not hugely romantic, but if I could drink a bottle of La Tâche from Romanée Conti and tell them to reproduce the taste at a fraction of the price then I could get quite excited.


Craft beer is currently very trendy, but many customers do not realize that what might look like a small craft beer is in fact owned by one of the large brewers. In many cases smaller genuine craft brewers are being snapped up by the big boys yet leaving the impression that they are small, boutique, and independently owned. I can give you some examples. Carlsberg owns London Fields, ABInBev owns Camden Town Brewery, Asahi owns the Meantime Brewery and Sapporo owns Anchor Brewing. The labels will almost certainly have no reference to the big company, thus persuading the consumer that they are drinking a genuine craft ale made with love and exotic hops to a special recipe. In fact, they could be drinking Carlsberg so do your homework if you want to support all those wonderful real passionate brewers who are doing so much to enhance the market place.


It is very sad to hear that about 12 wineries in the Napa and Sonoma valley in California have been destroyed by fire. A number of well known wineries including Stag's Leap were affected, but in many cases the grapes had at least been picked. The resultant fermenting wine may well have been affected by smoke taint however, depending where the wineries were situated. Vineyards have certainly been destroyed as well as some wineries but the information is very sparse at the time of writing. This only adds to what has been a difficult year in the wine business following the disastrous late frosts in Northern Europe that will force up prices in the New Year.


October 2017


I am afraid I am not a great fan of non-alcoholic beer or lager and would always suggest the 50/50 mix with the real thing if you need to lower the alcohol levels for any reason. However, Heineken now feel that they have solved the 'ultimate challenge' for brewers by producing a tasty alcohol-free lager. Many might say that full alcohol Heineken only marginally achieves this, but sales figures around the world have apparently been very encouraging. In Britain Heineken has suffered a decline - mainly due a large supermarket delisting the product - but the pending purchase of 1,900 Punch Taverns pubs will help. With so many wonderful regional breweries setting up everywhere I have to admit that any mass brewed beer or lager would not be high on my list.


Seven priests went to a pub in Cardiff recently to celebrate the ordination of one of their colleagues but just after placing the first round were thrown out by the landlord, who assumed that they were another rowdy stag party. The priests were initially unable to convince the staff that they were genuine and were resigned to turning the other cheek and walking out - not being the types to cause a fuss! However a neutral observer was finally able to authenticate their profession, and a free round was the order of the day. Indeed one of the priests was known as Father James and by pure chance it was discovered that the round they were poured was a Brains Brewery special called "Reverend James", named after a 19th Century Methodist minister who was also a well-known brewer in his day.

The deputy landlord - a Mr Morgan - commented that they had been great sports and seen the funny side of the situation.


A sixty-eight year old woman has completed the remarkable feat of visiting every Wetherspoons pub in the country - over a thousand with five more opening this year. It doesn't sound madly exciting to me, but her husband was a trainspotter which might explain it. Now if she had visited all the wonderful micro-breweries in the country or every pub called the 'King's Head' I would have understood it, but Wetherspoons! What an exciting life some people lead. Actually I went to a rather good Wetherspoons pub in Exeter recently so perhaps I am being a bit unkind!


September 2017

Refresh your glass and stay guilt free. Every week we read that something is bad for you and it often is some scaremongering about the dangers of drinking too much. Whilst some of this may be relevant it is now thought that humans created agriculture not necessarily to grow food but grain designed to turn into fermented drinks. It seems they enjoyed the alcohol experience and who can blame them although it is thought the level of consumption was extraordinarily high!

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One of the great joys of watching cricket at Lords is the regulation that allows you to bring in a bottle of wine to be enjoyed with a picnic whilst watching and listening to the gentle sound of bat on ball. Very few (if any) other sporting occasions allow you to do this and as a spectator you are forced to drink the most appalling overpriced liquid provided by a sponsor. So with four wine merchants in prime seats we all brought a bottle of our favourite affordable wine and settled in for the pre-lunch session. We started with a Gewurztraminer - not from Alsace but from Somontano in northern Spain, followed by a sublime Macon from Southern Burgundy. Then came the Tasmanian Pinot Noir and a Californian Zinfandel. Quite a mix of exciting wines which certainly trumped the cricket being played, and all drunk by the lunch interval. Did that mean resorting to the South African Merlot from the bar? Luckily not as my host had a cleverly concealed false bottom in his picnic bag so the two classed growth clarets escaped detection. We even drank out of decent glassware.

So it was rather sad to read that an incident involving a drunken member has put this rather civilised tradition under threat. I have no idea what happened but an incident in the Harris garden has prompted the MCC to send a reminder to members about their behaviour and responsibilities and the subject will be debated in committee. I plead for leniency - how could I enjoy Lords with a plastic cup and a cheap Merlot in my hand!

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I had a wonderful trip down to Rathfinny, the newest and biggest English winery situated near Eastbourne. The Rathfinny estate was bought by Mark and Sarah Driver in 2010 with the sole intention of turning it into one of the largest and most spectacular of all English wineries. Whilst arable is still farmed they have 180 acres under vine with double this expected by 2021 making it the largest area under vine in the UK. The setting is stunning, the investment spectacular and the first vintage delicious - although not yet released. They have planted the classic Champagne varieties as you would expect but also make a still Pinot Blanc/Pinot Gris blend as well as a grape distilled gin. We should have the first wines on our shelves by the end of 2018 and the target price is under £30. Keep your eyes out!


August 2017

At the time of writing we are in the first weeks of trading at our new Turl Street shop having completed the total refurbishment of Duckers which finally closed its doors at the beginning of the year. My grandfather was at Jesus college when Duckers opened in 1898 and I remember my half brother, who was an Oriel, proudly boasting that he had saved up for a pair of shoes which would last a life time.

But one door closes and another opportunity arises! The site is small and tight but we now firmly believe that we need to be in the city centre in order to enhance the company status within the city and make the company more accessible to customers. Our Botley road shop is a success but not easy to get to unless you happen to live on the SW side of Oxford. Our Head Office at Standlake also has a shop but is generally the hub for our wholesale business.

The new Turl Street shop is managed by Mark Warde-Aldam who has spent 26 years at Majestic - latterly running the Summertown Branch. He brings with him massive experience and a load of contacts. He is assisted by Matthew Whitaker , who has been the sommelier at the Michelin starred Nut Tree at Murcot.

Please do come in and have a look!

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We have always been keen to tell customers that we use quality glasses to serve our wine at the Oxford Wine Café in Jericho. We believe it enhances the drinking experience and whilst it might be expensive it is essential that we do not go down the "small cheap glass filled to the rim" route. I always cringe when a member of staff wipes the glasses too vigorously as I know the outcome and no doubt a few customers have quite a collection of our glasses by now . One of the hazards of being in this business!

Nevertheless we aim to maintain standards and Riedel is the chosen glass provider. However they have now brought a lawsuit against Marks and Spencer for what it calls an infringement of trademark. They argue that the "Sommeliers" range are too close to their own design. A hearing is scheduled shortly but whatever the outcome please be prepared to invest in decent glassware. It really does enhance the drinking experience!

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It is very unusual for a Frenchman to even acknowledge that wine is drinkable outside France. However Xavier Bizot, the great nephew of Lily Bollinger,has announced that the best wine he has ever drunk was a Penfolds Bin A 1962 which is from Australia. This is a bold statement which will do no harm to Australia's reputation, which at the lower level has taken a battering in the last 10 years. Xavier now works in Australia at Tapanappa in the Adelaide Hills but his comments are interesting. "Australia is a lucky country ...because it is warm and dry. The best vintages in Bordeaux and Burgundy are warm and dry but the problem s that it cannot water, whereas Australia can. So that's our luck.".

He also firmly believes that Australia should not try to copy European wines but have the confidence to trust in their own style.


July 2017

I am afraid that I do get rather fed up with hearing about "celebrities" buying vineyards as if it is of any interest to real wine lovers. I am told that some are quite hands on but do they all roll up their sleeves and spend 16 hours a day during harvest doing all the dirty work? No - they invest simply as a play thing and to me this cheapens the wine business. Give me eight generations of a Tuscan family or a Languedoc peasant farmer who have the passion, history and commitment which is mysteriously reflected in the glass you drink. However a vineyard seems to be the fashionable must have accessory these days and money can buy anything (Trump has one in Virginia - very poor apparently!) but please spare me the publicity that a member of the Eastenders cast has dabbled in their passion. Mind you this would be likely to be Pinot Grigio or white Zinfandel! Heaven help us all.


We all rather assume that large doses of alcohol can alter your personality, sometimes resulting in seemingly increased levels of passion or anger. However scientists from the University of Missouri insist that the only tangible effect of alcohol is extraversion with someone's personality becoming louder or more prominent rather than altered. I am not sure that my experience bears this out. I have some acquaintances who behave very differently when they have consumed alcohol often becoming violent and abusive when I would normally consider them kind and level headed. I cannot cope with this sort of drunk probably because my symptoms are generally based round over-enthusiasm, impetuousness and excitement with a touch of verbal diarrhoea thrown in. Perhaps the scientists are right - we simply emphasise and exaggerate our current characters. In which case I need to be more wary!


Cerne Abbas Brewery from the heart of rural Dorset is launching a virility boosting beer made from hops and watercress seeds together with the local spring water. It had been dubbed a "super food" as it is rich in vitamins A B C and E, and watercress is supposed to increase male sex drive. The beer's logo is the local Cerne Abbas giant - a 180ft tall chalk figure carved into the local hillside. A quick glance at this figure does suggest that he is rather well endowed so guys - if you want me to get in some stock please email me? All enquiries will be treated in the strictest confidence!


June 2017

You may well have read a most interesting article in The Times recently concerning the fact that flavour perception when tasting wine is created in the brain. Our sensory response to food and wine combine to create what we think of as flavour in things that do not inherently possess it. Gordon Shepherd, a professor of neuroscience at Yale, says "the molecules in wine don't have taste or flavour but when they stimulate our brains, the brain creates the flavour the same way it creates colour". He goes on to explain that nosing a wine is less important than swilling it around the mouth but that swallowing the wine just causes more confusion. This saturates the brain and makes it harder to process information. We are heavily dependent on our own memories and emotions when analysing wine as well as additional factors like the composition of our saliva as well as age and gender. All very complicated but perhaps us wine tasters have got it right. Sniff, swill but don't swallow. I know a few novice wine merchants who don't always get that right!

An extraordinary one million vines were planted in the UK this year alone. This would roughly fill about 625 acres and is likely to yield in the region of an additional 2 million bottles. This just shows the confidence in the English wine industry which really ought to be supported by the government with a drop in duty rates. I imagine this has not been possible with us in Europe but with Brexit looming who is to stop the chancellor doing something to encourage our local farmers and entrepreneurs from taking our wine industry even further. After all, surely he will only be answerable to the electorate and no longer a body of European bureaucrats?

As if we have not had enough to cope with recently I now hear that heavy frosts across northern Europe have badly affected potential harvests with young buds being wiped out. Champagne is badly hit (any excuse for a price hike!) as well as areas of Germany and Austria. What happened to global warming? Only last week I read that scientists believe that the south of England will be too hot for grape growing in the year 2100.

May 2017

Do you fancy a glass of Burgundian Syrah or even a Gamay/Syrah blend from the Beaujolais? At the moment of course this is impossible as Syrah is not a permitted grape variety in these regions but I do now know that one or two producers are experimenting with this grape as it is late ripening and more heat resistant than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. As one, unnamed producer says "it would be a good idea having Syrah in Beaujolais and added some to a cru would give it more complexity and structure". Of course there are no official plans to adopt the Syrah and instead experiments continue on the characterisation of the generic diversity of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as climate change becomes more relevant. Of course in many other parts of the world you can plant what you like and play around with as many grape blends as you like. The Burgundians will never change of course but a bit of Syrah would undoubtedly boost the quality of most cheap Pinot Noir!

I never seem to find silver foil bottle pourers when I need them and actually I probably do not have the patience to bother with them anyway preferring to let a wine drip on to the table cloth or on to a guest's shirt! However this issue could soon become a thing of the past as American biophysicist Dr Perlman has invented the drip free bottle. He explains that glass is a hydrophilic material - in other words water molecules are attracted to it. When poured wine tends to curl backwards over the lip and run down the side of the bottle. However by creating a bottle with a diamond cut groove below the lip this guarantees a drip free pour as the droplet cannot traverse the groove. Instead it falls off the bottle and into the wine with the rest of the liquid.. My heart bleeds for the pretentious sommelier /wine waiter who will now no longer be able to make a fuss about wiping the bottles with a pristine white napkin in between pours!

Red wine should be served at room temperature, if that's between 62 to 68 degrees and should generally be easily achieved. It is always better to serve it on the cooler side than warmer especially if it is a lighter style like Beaujolais or Burgundy. Decanting is, in my view, essential if only to give the wine's flavours a chance to break out after being couped up in a bottle for years. White wine should never be served so cold that it detracts from its complexity, an all too common problem with wine served in pubs and other more hurried establishments. Putting a bottle of white in an ice bucket is rarely necessary and can be a messy experience. In both cases the use of a correct glass only enhances the experience. At the Oxford Wine Cafes we only serve wine from a Reidel glass as the shape improves the flavours of different grape varieties and makes the whole wine drinking experience a more pleasant one. For those interested in learning more about wine please do invest in the correct glassware - even the cheapest supermarket plonk will taste better!

April 2017

Yet again French vintners have hijacked two Spanish tankers and emptied their contents of basic everyday wine in protest at these foreign imports that they claim are ruining their livelihood. Two thoughts; firstly Spain is producing better quality and affordability at the bottom end so why don't the French up their game and match them rather than adopting such a militant approach. Secondly If this is the future of a 'united' Europe then aren't you glad we are on the way out!

A whisky auctioneer has uncovered a massive counterfeiting operation described as "extremely sophisticated". Apparently an auctioneer visited the private residence of the seller and became suspicious of the large number of valuable bottles he came across. All these were rare and valuable items, if genuine. Police were called and uncovered a hugely sophisticated operation not seen on such a scale before. The auctioneering house pride themselves on assessing the authenticity and provenance of any bottles and in this case the offences involved passing off non vintage spirit as rare and old whisky. This is the second time in a year that similar operations have been discovered with much of the stock looking to be sold abroad to unsuspecting private individuals.

Those who read this column regularly will know that I am not a great fan of oak in wine so I was intrigued to see Marco Cashera's comment that "oak is only good for making tables and chairs". Marco is the commercial director of Meursault based Domaine Vincent Girardin in Burgundy. The estate has changed its style and whereas it used to make heavy oaky wines that appealed to a certain market it now has changed course looking to produce elegant biodynamic styles with minimum intervention. They still use oak but insist it should not be tasted. Instead a hint of butter and vanilla might emerge but not any toasty oak! Marco goes on to suggest that all Burgundy, white as well as red, should be decanted. "Not decanting Burgundy" he says "is like making love when fully dressed". In my view all good wine should be decanted and served in appropriate glassware.

March 2017

I love Burgundy - or at least I thought I loved Burgundy. The problem is that I have been lucky enough to enjoy some stunning Burgundy, both red and white, over the years but never at my own expense. Yet trying to find good affordable Burgundy is becoming a difficult problem as so much seems to be overpriced and does not deliver. So let's start with white. The ones I enjoy are the simple Maconnais and Chalonnais wines where really good classic whites are made from the Chardonnay grape. I talk of Macon Villages, St Veran, Vire-Clesse, Pouilly Fuisse and the like. These tend to be dry yet with a rounded creamy feel and only a small amount of oak (if any) to balance out the flavours. They are affordable and generally reliable although as with all Burgundy knowing the grower or co-operative is pretty important. Further up into Burgundy the whites become richer and heavier - I talk of Meursault, Chassagne Montrachet and Puligny Montrachet to name some of the more famous village names. These are considerably more expensive and are often heavily oaked when young hopefully evolving to become better balanced wines when the fruit and oak work in harmony - usually 3-6 years later although the best growers will produce stunning wines from good vintages which can have a much longer life.

As for red I am becoming very frustrated with the garbage produced from the Pinot Noir grape under the banner Bourgogne Rouge, or Bourgogne Pinot Noir. These are mostly very raw and lack any real fruit flavours at all. Up the scale Mercurey and Rully are better bets - again from southern Burgundy and again if you know the growers' reputations. Further north we come across Nuits St Georges, Gevrey Chambertin and Pommard to name a few of the popular wines found in most respected wine stores. Like the whites they come in various guises and probably start at around £30 a bottle but often command much higher prices. Over Christmas and New Year I seemed to have been given or opened a range of supposed better quality reds but time and time again the wines were lacking fruit and flavour with often an unattractive bitter acidity to them.

So are they worth it compared with the alternatives? Much as I love French wine I have to conclude that there is much better value Pinot Noir produced elsewhere in the world - at least at the £20-30 mark! The areas that I would look at are the Martinborough and Otago regions of New Zealand, Mornington Peninsular in Australia, California, Oregon and Southern Germany. In blind tastings these wines tend to overshadow Red Burgundy. For good white Burgundy lookalikes try South Africa, New Zealand and some cooler regions of Australia. For even better value red Pinots look at Chile and Romania . For affordable but decent Chardonnay again try Chile and the Languedoc region of France.

I cannot help feeling that ignorance (or lack of knowledge) persuades people to part with vast sums of money for expensive Burgundy often sold to them by merchants with a vested interest. In a blind tasting I almost guarantee that I could find something outside the region that would impress them more and save them a few bob.

February 2017

A 66 year old man had been imprisoned for 10 years for running a ponzi (or 'get rich quick' investment scam) called Premier Cru. This was founded in California and made its name selling fine Bordeaux promising delivery within 6 months. The wines were in many cases never bought and he used the money to fund an extravagant lifestyle before the law finally caught up with him. This is such a common theme. Slick salesman use heavily scripted jargon to persuade you to buy a 'guaranteed' investment. Someone even targeted me recently and it was fascinating how quickly he put the phone down when I asked him for more detail about the oak ageing and grape blend. But not until I had allowed him to tell me all about the current market and the rich growth potential. I have fallen victim to a share scam before so am especially wary these days but it is so easy to get caught up in a little fun investment if you have some spare cash. Wine investment sounds rather glamorous and you can always drink it if all else fails - if it ever arrives!! Not for the first time do I warn you all to only buy through the likes of major wine merchants like Berry Brothers or The Wine Society.

It's wonderful news that Chapel Down has replaced Bollinger as sponsor of the University Boat Race. Chapel Down is one of the many excellent English wineries producing top quality fizz and this deal should raise its profile hugely. It is highly appropriate too as surely the Boat Race is quintessentially English and should indeed be supporting our own wine growers.

So Harrods is closing its Wine Department. The 7000 square feet basement is destined to become a 225 seater restaurant. The current wine section was only created six years ago and attracted the rich and wealthy in large numbers. My son, George, did a three month spell there a few years ago and did comment that it was a bit 'spot the celebrity'. He tells the tale of offering to carry a case of wine by hand all the way back to Susan Hamphire's house - she was utterly charming apparently! It seems that Harrod's decision was made following a fall in the number of really wealthy clients coming to the shop but this is quite likely to be connected to the fact that Hedonism has opened in Mayfair. This phenomenal shop, owned by a Russian, is the bling of the wine world and no doubt had an effect on Harrod's sales. Harrods have suggested that it may relocate the wine section elsewhere and that it is likely to remain extremely impressive.


January 2017

So Usain Bolt, the triple Olympic gold medallist is about to retire and rumours continue that he could be the next James Bond. This is unlikely but we do know that he has been appointed CEO of Mumm Champagne. This will stand for Chief Entertainment Officer and he will be employed to promote the brand throughout the world. The classic Mumm label is being redesigned and the brand publicity under Bolt will no doubt be interesting and eccentric. According to Mumm "Bolt's leadership in sport is unparalleled and his pursuit of victory and the well known celebrations that follow his wins have entertained legions of fans worldwide. In his new role Bolt will take the lead in creating unique and daring ways to bring celebrations to consumers everywhere through the energy, intensity and enticing freshness of Mumm - aligned perfectly with Maison Mumm's own motto 'Only the best.'"

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who have announced that they have started divorce proceedings are likely to put their wine property in Provence, Chateau Miraval, on the market. A blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Rolle, their rosé wine made an immediate impact after the Chateau was purchased in 2011. The winemaker is Marc Perrin, owner of the famous Chateau Beaucastel in the Rhone and the 2016 vintage will be released despite doubts about the future. They also make a red and a white but undoubtedly the star is the rosé which still drinks really well despite some huge price rises in recent years. It is interesting how Provence rosé sales have increased over the years. No longer is it considered just a simple summer glugger but actually sells well throughout the year. I certainly enjoy the dry and subtle minerality with the salty tang working really well with certain foods. As I now seem to spend some of my summer in France I am a complete convert and would urge those who enjoy drier styles and food orientated wines to give Provence a go.

Minimum pricing is back on the menu for discussion in parliament. Great news - if tackled correctly it will help prevent ridiculous below cost promotions by some of the supermarket groups and discourage binge drinking at home. I have always been in favour of any move that will entice people to drink sensibly in bars and enjoy the benefits of social interaction. It also presents a level playing field but let's hope that the government set a realistic minimum price and does not pamper to pressure groups.

Our UK based suppliers have been very quick to pass on 'interim price increases' to us in the wake of the Brexit inspired exchange rate issues and of course anything we have shipped since May will have cost us considerably more by the time we have paid the bills. This will undoubtedly force up prices although we have absorbed almost everything so far and have yet to pass on any price increases to our customers. Interestingly I note that these suppliers were not so quick to reduce prices when they enjoyed the much better rates than anticipated pre Brexit. As the ratio creeps back up (as I write it is 1.18 euros to the pound) I wonder if there will be a reversal of the interim increase? I don't think I need to spell out the answer! Of course the majority of faster moving lines are shipped in directly and I won't pretend that it hasn't hurt a little - but we keep smiling!

December 2016

Penfolds chief winemaker does not believe in screwcaps and feels that the best closure for wine is possibly glass. Experiments are continuing and Penfolds has wine under glass, cork and screwcap - the oldest screwcap red being 1999 which is not old enough to draw any real conclusions. The main issue seems to be detecting heat damage which is difficult to determine on screwcap wines but easier under cork because if a wine gets too hot it will weep from the cork which is a sure sign of a wine being badly handled or keep in too warm a condition. The best bottles are always the untravelled well kept bottles from the cellar as too many people use wine as an investment and ship it around from place to place without always ensuring the wine is refrigerated to the correct temperature. Meanwhile screwcap or glass is probably best for white and everyday reds but cork for the better reds - at least that seems to be the Penfolds philosophy!

A South African wine producer has just bought a golf course in Sussex with the aim of planting 45 acres of Champagne grape varieties and also keeping the main course open. They are hoping to create a golf and wine estate to encompass fine dining, tastings and vineyard tours. The company has done something very similar in South Africa and evidently have confidence in global warming and the English climate. As a rule most golf clubs have an appalling wine selection in their clubhouse which does nothing to encourage members to stay and spend. Perhaps this decision will inspire others. It just seems extraordinary that members who pay vast amounts in joining fees and annual membership, and by association are probably used to living well, get thrust a selection of commercial insipid wines often served from a dispenser!

Some grape seeds from Turkey have been uncovered in an excavation taking place in the Bornova district of Izmir. These dried seeds were found in bowls and are believed to be from the Muscat grape. They are at least 5000 years old and will shed valuable light on life in the Bronze age.

Surrey's Hog's Back Brewery featured recently on the Countryfile TV show and the host Anita Rani was rather impressed with the hop aromas she experienced in the beers. She crushed some hops in her hand and declared that "you could wear it as perfume" before quickly retracting the statement in case she attracted all the wrong characters!

November 2016

Despite its current problems and a collapse in the share price it is good to see that Majestic wine is again looking to find small parcels of interesting wine to offer its customers. Under the banner "when they've gone they've gone" this will allow regular customers an opportunity to try some interesting wines. Majestic had become rather predictable but any move to uncover some really boutique wine should be welcomed and reminds of the days when Oddbins was at its peak and living up to its name.

According to recent research there are not enough women in the retail wine sector and the Independent trade is still apparently dominated by men. It seems that about 15% of small shops are jointly owned, many by husband and wife teams but there are few women who run and control their own retail group. The Independent sector remains strong but with wine being sold through so many competitive channels these days it is hard to develop and expand a retail presence. Women are however apparently more dominant in PR, marketing, and journalism where their roles often allow more flexibility and their presence, according to research, is more appealing.

A whisky warehouse worker in Scotland has captured an intriguing photograph of the Loch Ness Monster. An amateur photographer, he had set out to capture images of stags but turned his camera on Nessie when he saw what he initially thought were seals playing. On his return he studied the pictures more carefully and is convinced he now has the best picture of Nessie taken for years. There have been more sightings this year than ever before - and apparently it is not the whisky talking!

Sake, the Japanese rice wine, is becoming more popular and is actually rather good as I discovered at a small tasting recently. Traditionally Sake was made for early drinking but a few breweries have started making Sake to last and improve - or that is the theory! It's too early to tell whether it is a wise investment but I dare say that with clever marketing and a touch of the Emperor's new clothes it could sell rather well in Paris, New York and London.

October 2016

According to a new study by Lloyds one in six investors are sinking their fortunes into fine wine and whisky. This ranked sixth behind jewellery, cars, antiques, coins, art and stamps. As with all these investments it is about catching the market at the right time. A friend of mine bought two cases of Chateau le Pin in the early 80s for just over £100 and sold them for a 5 figure sum in the late 90s when they had been 'discovered' by Robert Parker. That was luck - it mostly is!! But having collected your wine don't be foolish enough to hand it over to a con artist. Yet another scam story has emerged with somebody calling themselves 'Embassy Wine' and claiming to be a broker for fine wines. They would persuade investors to hand over their collection so they could sell the wine at preferential prices before readvising the client on alternative wine investments. Of course there were handling charges and highly sophisticated paperwork but in essence the wine simply disappeared. The mastermind behind this managed to eek out the scam over some years - after all you don't expect to actually see your wine in most cases and rather assume that when a written value of your portfolio arrives in the post the wine is safely stored and gaining value in a bonded warehouse. Just make sure that when investing in wine you use a reputable expert in this area - you will never go wrong with Berry Brothers or The Wine Society.

The duty and VAT on a bottle of wine selling at £5.99 is approximately £3.07 pence. However, the duty and VAT on a £9.69 bottle is about £3.75. It goes on - the duty is the same on any bottle of still wine so the more you spend the higher the proportion of 'wine' value you get. So in a £5.99 bottle the actual liquid costs about 50p but in the £9.69 wine the liquid costs £2.50. So for less than twice the price you get 5 times the wine quality - supposedly! It therefore makes sense to trade up to between £8 - £15 to get value for money and enjoy better quality. Worth thinking about!

Is it me or is Bordeaux improving? Or am I just getting old.? They always say Claret is an old man's drink! I was in Bordeaux recently and ordered a few cases of Chateau Labegorse (previously known as Labegorse Zede) from the commune of Margaux. Although I did not actually visit this property the word on the street is that it is under new ownership and is hugely improved yet still great value. I was reliably informed that prices will start rising soon so I bagged a few cases of the 2012 vintage which despite its youth is really tasting rather good. I will certainly slip away a few cases but this is a Chateau worth watching. Another is Chateau Pedesclaux, a 5th growth in the Pauillac region, which is under new ownership and making dramatically better wines. The vineyards are sandwiched between Pontet Canet and Mouton Rothchild so there is some serious pedigree here!


September 2016

Rarely a day goes by without Donald Trump upsetting someone somewhere. This time it was in Scotland where he has been granted permission to have a beer buggy on the golf course with an alcohol licence from 10.00am so that golfers can immediately celebrate a great chip, drive or putt. How crude and basic is that? Surely the whole essence of any sport is to play hard, finish the game, shake hands and then have a drink and relive the fun with some gentle banter and bonhommie. At this rate a golfer on a good round would be in no fit state to even reach the clubhouse! But we are talking Donald Trump - need I say more?

There is very little Cabernet Franc planted in Argentina but many producers are convinced that, in time, this grape will be second only to the famous Malbec and give Bonarda, another popular local variety, a run for its money. Rogelio Rabino, the winemaker at the Kaiken winery believes Bonarda is great at entry level but will never produce a premium wine, whereas Cabernet Franc is capable of hitting great heights. This grape is well known in the Loire and is used as one of the lesser grapes in Bordeaux although some producers use a higher percentage of this than Cabernet Sauvignon, the predominant grape in the Medoc. There are a few examples of straight Cabernet Franc which are a little lean when grown in cooler climates such as the Loire but can be quite beefy and smoky when they have seen a little more sun. Ask your local wine merchant to select a few examples to try!

A collection of wines, spirits and schnapps from the Nazi era have been discovered after a construction worker fell through the floor of the house he was repairing near Russia's southern border with Ukraine. The wines are emblazened with swastikas on the labels and must have an enormous historic value. The problem is that the workers decided to have a spontaneous party and it was a while before an expert arrived to declare the find in perfect shape - unlike the workers! "It seems that the Nazis completely forgot about this hoard when they ran for their life" said the so called expert who then declared that he would drink some of the bottles on Victory day, the Russian national holiday that celebrates the end of WW2.

August 2016

Whatever long term gain there may be regarding Brexit will certainly result in short term pain. No one is expecting tariffs, as we in the wine business are far too important to the continent, but the reality is that the change in exchange rates will eventually have a huge impact on prices. Some large companies will have bought ahead and so will protected in the short term but most companies would not have expected the Brexit vote so may well have held back hoping to get a better rate after the anticipated remain vote. We tend to buy our Euros on speculation so all the wine we have sold during June/July will be paid for in August/Sept (the duty element has to be paid up front). 6 weeks ago we were getting over 1.30 to the pound but today considerably less and heaven knows what will happen in the next months. This means that wine will cost us more and whilst we do not intend increasing any prices until next April all wine companies will, at some point, have to make the decision to maintain margin. So this will affect you all I'm afraid!!.

Macallan Whisky has released the sixth and final expression from its Six Pillars Collection - a £26,000 65 year old single malt presented in 450 decanters designed and crafted by French crystal house Lalique. The whisky itself has been matured in Sherry seasoned casks and has an ABV of 46.3%. The description will amuse those who feel this whole game is full of pretentious twaddle, "Supremely balanced with comforting notes of honey dipped Madagascan vanilla pods, cinnamon and Moroccan dates. A medium body with hints of cracked pepper, cloves and delicately toasted cocoa beans. The finish is long and deeply satisfying with a rich flavour of honey and dark chocolate." So there you have it - get your orders in soon!!

A Californian Diocese has now produced wine from within the grounds of its own cemeteries. The vines were planted as it was cheaper than laying turf and it was considered ecologically more sensible as vines require far less water than grass at times of drought. The altar wines were initially disappointing despite the natural goodness in the ground (!) but after taking advice the project now produces a range of award winning different styles in both red and white. Whilst kneeling would it be improper to ask for a wine list before drinking from the cup?

June 2016

So much for EC harmony as we hear that the French are hi jacking Spanish lorries bringing in cheap wine from across the border and opening the taps to drain them into local fields. A huge incident happened just 10 miles from the border when 70,000 litres of wine were poured over the motorway. Of course we are supposed to allow free movement of goods within the EC but with production in Spain being so cheap France has, ironically, become the largest export market for Spain. Do you think that is has occurred to the French that inexpensive Spanish wine tastes rather better than the French equivalent? But then when you only work a 25 hour week, take 2 hour lunches and disappear in August the cost of production is bound to be higher!!

How sad to hear of the death of Etienne Hugel from the famous Alsace family. He died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of only 49. I remember interviewing him at our Head Office and this can still be found on a YouTube clip. He was a charming modest man who was extraordinarily well travelled having been the export director for the family firm for many years. Hugel is one of the very best names in Alsace and if you are not familiar with Alsatian wines why not use his untimely passing as an excuse to discover the charms of the Gewurztramer grape variety. Neither too German nor French in style the wines have an extraordinary pungency with flavours of spice and lychee and can be drunk on their own or as a great accompaniment to stronger pate or frois gras.

Some of you will have heard about "The Judgement of Paris" when top Bordeaux Wines were pitched against their Californian equivalents in a blind tasting. The Bordeaux wines were considered inferior by the stellar group of experienced French tasters acting as judges. Well - the same has just happened with Champagne and English Sparkling Wine. Also in Paris and with some 14 of the great French tasters, Ridgeview Bloomsbury (£28) tied with Champagne Jacquesson (£38) at 7-7. In the Rosé section Gusbourne Rose (£38) beat Champagne Ayala (35) by 9-5. In the Blanc de Blancs section Nyetimber (£40) beat Billecart Salmon Champagne (£65) 9-5. In the latter section 13 of the 14 were convinced the English was the Champagne. Need I say more!!


May 2016

Oh no!! I have just read that Donald Trump has brought out his own wine emblazoned with the Trump moniker. God help us all and let's pray that nobody in this country is foolish enough to import it. It sells for up to $50 a bottle and apparently is sourced from Virginia. Tasting notes might read something like "Rich but straightforward, lacking complexity, substance and depth - a wine with a limited future". It seems that the current President was also amused to hear this and in a rip roaring speech in Texas he took Trump to task over his wine brand by saying "has anyone actually bought that wine?" I do have a distrust for celebrities jumping on the bandwagon and bringing out wines under their name. With a few exceptions most are just fronting a brand or vineyard and have very little knowledge of the wine making process. Even if they own the property they rarely visit - it is merely a commercial opportunity which makes me feel less inclined to buy the product.

French winemakers have thrown their toys out of the pram because the organisers of the Tour de France have found a Chilean Wine sponsor for the event. I do have some sympathy here and their plan to disrupt the event has forced some back peddling on the part of the organisers. What would the protesters have done? Well in the past urine and tacks have been used in protest about various aspects of the race but cheap French wine might be an equally unpleasant experience for the riders!

Apparently drinking wine just before going to bed helps people lose weight by burning fat and staving off late night snacking . Resveratrol, a substance found in red wine "helps turn body hugging white fat into quick burning beige fat and this can partially prevent obesity" according to Professor Du, one of the scientists at Washington State University. Mind you barely a month goes by without us reading an article pressing the case for or against wine drinking so the key here is moderation. I don't think Professor Du intended you to down a bottle at 11.00pm!!

My old friend Oz Clarke, who I believe to be one of the very best and least arrogant of the wine writers and broadcasters, says that Sauvignon Blanc is the grape variety that wine snobs cannot bear. However he feels they are mistaken and that Sauvignon Blanc is as important as Pinot Noir in terms of giving countless pleasure to millions of drinkers. Pinot Noir might be the harder wine to make and will arouse more discussion and debate, but Sauvignon generally gives instant pleasure and is hardly intellectually exhausting! As Oz says "If the first mouthful doesn't bring a smile and encourage a second gulp then it is not doing its job properly. Its job is to amuse and encourage laughter - not invite discussion of the minutiae about how it is made". One of the great strengths of Sauvignon is its simplicity and the fact that there are a wide range of styles available.

April 2016

A Scottish based company is launching a grapefruit based beer and has come up with a gimmicky way to entice new customers. Anyone presenting a grapefruit will be offered a free half pint, but with the offer restricted to one half per person the offer seems less than attractive. The grapefruit will be sent to the brewery for use in the next brew. So how much does it actually cost to produce a half pint compared with the cost of a single grapefruit?

We are fast approaching Budget time and by the time you read this it will be done and dusted. My plea to the Chancellor would be to keep cutting duty rates especially giving a break to our own industry. Whisky, gin, cider, beer and wine are all produced to a high standard in the UK and should be encouraged for many different reasons. In England the average consumer (which probably excludes those who read this column!) pays £333 in tax on booze each year, whereas the same consumption in Italy would attract a tax of just £46. For those interested the tax on table wine is £2.05, sparkling wine is £2.63 and spirits £7.26. However it doesn't stop there because you have VAT at 20% on the whole cost which includes the liquid, glass, stopper, label, transport etc and also on the duty tax. So you pay a tax on a tax. It's just crazy!! There is always a fight against the anti alcohol lobby but recent figures have shown that a cut in duty brings greater revenue to the treasury so come on Mr Osborne - you know it makes sense!!

Ridgeview Rosé, one of the leading English sparkling wines, was served at the reception for the Oscars hosted by James Corden. The Sussex winery has an established distribution on the West Coast of America and plans to develop sales across the country. English sparkling wines continue to impress in blind tastings and even the French have jumped on the bandwagon with Taittinger Champagne buying a swathe of land on the chalky soils of the South Downs.

March 2016

So Tesco may have "seriously breached" a legally binding groceries code to protect suppliers I read in Harpers Wine & Spirit magazine. It seems that Tesco made unilateral deductions from suppliers when it paid - and often took a long time doing so by "intentionally delaying" payments according to a recent report on its unscrupulous behaviour. It did this to improve its own financial position whilst at the same time causing hardship and in some cases bankruptcy to its suppliers. The serious fraud office and the Financial Conduct Authority are conducting investigations but I am fairly convinced that Tesco will be seriously reprimanded but get away without punishment. This seems to be the order of the day. Heaven forbid the consequences if we make a small error in filing VAT or personal tax forms but if a large multinational company misbehaves it seems to get a mere rap on the knuckles. Large powerful organisations often demand a huge amount from their suppliers even before the first products arrive on the shelves and despite contracts signed they seem quite happy to introduce respective discounts and marketing budgets which were never discussed at the time but imposed with the threat to drop the supplier. Many producers are walking away from this and looking for more attractive markets.

The Oxford Wine Company is one of the founding members of a group called 'Vindependents,' set up by 18 regional wholesalers/retailers but open to any independent in the country. We aim to source wines from producers directly which means we can monitor where the wine is sold, have some control of the pricing by taking very small margins and passing these on to the members who often have regional exclusivity. The producer is therefore spreading his risk and at the same time reaching genuine wine buyers without having to water down his product to sing to the tune of the big players. What is interesting is that some larger well known 'household' names are approaching us and see this method of infiltration a more sensible way to position their product in the UK. They can maintain quality, offer support and know they will be paid on time. We have strict rules within the Vindependents and members not adhering to best practice are removed from the group. It works for us and it works for our suppliers. We may not offer any threat to Tesco but please take note of our moral position!

February 2016

We are told that over half of middle aged drinkers do not want advice on how to moderate their drinking habits. It seems that whilst the young tend to binge drink as the weekend beckons, the older age group tend to drink consistently during the whole week. We are constantly told that this is not the correct approach and that we should all limit ourselves to a small glass a night and try to have at least two dry days a week. Who knows the truth as every month a new report comes out either suggesting you will avoid various diseases by drinking a few glasses of red or that if you touch a drop you are likely to be dead by tea time. As far as I am concerned we all know when we have had a spate of over indulging and it is up to us to regulate our intake and listen to our bodies. Quite frankly I would rather visit the vineyards in Heaven having experienced those here on earth first!

We are in danger of becoming a nanny state - the latest example being that we can no longer display cigars for our customers. We can keep a humidor and sell them but apparently actually seeing them is likely to be a temptation too far. Quite frankly by the time most people start looking at cigars they are usually a defined smoker so I am not too convinced that this blanking out of the cigar humidor door will have any effect. It does seem crazy to, in effect, say that it is fine to sell them but you are not allowed to display them. Where will it stop? Under this wrap there is a car - you cannot see it but it goes quite fast and is very smooth. Sadly it is responsible for some deaths each year so we do not want to encourage you to buy it. Please allow us to make our own decisions based on knowledge and understanding of the risks and dangers.

UK sparkling wines Hambledon Classic Cuvée and Nyetimber Classic Cuvée beat off competition in a blind tasting competition with many top Champagnes. These were the top two wines beating top Champagnes like Veuve Cliquot, Pol Roger and Taittinger in a competition judged by a select group headed by wine journalist Jancis Robinson. This is yet another example of how good English sparkling wine has become in such a short time. We now just need a collective name for it. Ideas on a postcard please.

OK - so you don't want to hear this BUT I am sitting by the sea under a coconut palm in St Lucia with the most delicious drink and wondering why I never serve it at home. Rum and ginger beer! Not expensive and very refreshing with a bit of a kick. Rum is a great drink and very similar to Malt Whisky in many ways - I know some Rums that could easily be mistaken for Islay malts. No need for anything expensive for this drink but good Rum with a dash of water is a joy and totally underrated. In fact I think it's time for another - cheers!!

December 2015

President Putin was soaked with Champagne by Louis Hamilton following his recent grand prix victory in Russia - normally this heinous crime would result in a prolonged spell in Siberia but by all accounts the little man maintained a semblance of dignity. No doubt a new suit was produced within minutes and a bottle arrived that he might actually want to drink rather than shower in!! Meanwhile Mr Hamilton has increased his home security as a precaution.

Great news. Jayne Powell, alias "Champagne Jane," has won the right to keep her brand following a court battle with the Champagne authorities (CIVC). Jayne, who is Australian, was taken to court for infringing the Champagne name as she not only promoted Champagne but also sparkling wine which apparently damaged the goodwill of the Champagne sector. Jayne has been using the name since 2003 running champagne talks, tastings and masterclasses. Incensed by the CIVC's reaction, supporters launched a Jayne v Goliath fund as the legal fees escalated and Jayne was in danger of losing her house and declaring bankruptcy in the face of the bullying behaviour. The presiding Judge did accept that at times Jayne could appear misleading whilst promoting sparkling wine under the "Champagne Jayne " brand but felt that the CIVC had not done enough to compel the closure of Jayne's business. Ironically she was made a Dame Chevalier of the order of Champagne in 2012 and has written a book entitled "Great, Grand and Famous Champagnes." A wonderful and just result and a famous victory for "David!"

It was good to see the Queen supporting the English wine industry by serving Ridgeview sparkling as a pre dinner aperitif during China's president Xi Jinping's visit to England recently. The rest of the wines served were fairly traditional and with the Chinese loving claret a top line up was served. This included Chateau Haut Brion, a Graves from the 1989 vintage which is considered to be one of the great wines of the last century, along with a 1947 Cheval Blanc and a 1961 Latour. These were generous choices - no doubt anticipating the announcement of some lucrative trade deals in what is probably a carefully orchestrated diplomatic game!


November 2015

The new Oxford Wine Cafe in Little Clarendon Street is finally open! It has been quite a few months of toil, sweat and the odd tear but we made it - despite going well over budget. Naturally the bank was unbelievably unhelpful showing a complete lack of vision and understanding of business. Don't get me started but if you want a few extraordinary stories ask me. Despite leaking loos, dodgy dishwashers and inept providers business has been fantastic and I really hope that we are a great new addition to the central Oxford social scene.

A warning to those working at The Oxford Wine Café (Jericho)!! A local barman in India was the worst for wear after his shift and fell into a large pot hole where it is assumed he was knocked unconscious by the fall. Next day he was buried alive after construction workers filled in the hole with molten tar and used a heavy roller to tarmac the road. His death would have been unnoticed had local residents not spotted his fingers protruding from the road. The two road workers have been arrested and his family awarded 50,000 rupees (about £500) as compensation.

Malbec is making a comeback in Chile where it was first planted in 1840 having been brought over from the Cahors region of southern France. The grape only reached Argentina in 1868 and of course has now become synonymous with that country, producing stylish rich and complex reds which are ideal to accompany the local heavy meat dishes. The area under production in Chile is only about 1000 hectares compared with Argentina's 30000 hectares but nevertheless the quality is said to be very high, even though it is often blended with Carmenere and Carignan when creating elite wines. Many old vines still exist and the Malbec revival continues. A new idea for your next blind tasting - Chile v Argentina.

Bordeaux reds do not necessarily need oak ageing in order to have a long life ahead of them. Tannin is already present in the grape skins and provided it is extracted properly there is no need to use oak. Too many producers use oak as a matter of course without really considering if it enhances the wine and in some cases oak covers poor wine making and does not allow the fruit to dominate. I have never been a fan of oak and don't really enjoy Rioja as a rule. I prefer to taste the grape rather than a chunk of wood which may well explain why I enjoy good Chablis and southern Burgundian wines from the Cotes Maconnais compared with the richer, heavily oaked styles from the classic Burgundian regions. These are also much better value!!

October 2015

The Islay Malt Whisky distiller, Ardbeg, sent samples of its spirit into space on one of the recent trips to the International space station. The experiment was to assess the effect of zero gravity on terpenes - the building blocks of flavour for food and wine as well as whisky. As a result some serious differences were identified between the earthly and space affected samples. Ardbegs director of distilling said "The space samples were noticeably different. When I nosed and tasted the space samples it became clear that much more of Ardbeg's smoky, phenolic character shone through to reveal a different set of smoky flavours which I have not encountered here on earth before." He continued to say that this experiment showed that there was more complexity to be uncovered and that the zero gravity also seemed to affect the impact of wood. I await the next batch to arrive at our warehouse - "aged in oak on the planet Zog!!" I also wonder how space travel will affect the price?

This year an amazing 19 candidates passed the MW exam. The new MW's feature 11 women and eight men, with 10 countries represented, including the first Singaporean to claim this title. Together with the five new members elected earlier in the year, they bring the total number of people to hold this increasingly international qualification to 340. In previous years only two or three candidates have ever passed but changes in the research paper have allowed more new members than normal. Whilst this qualification is extremely prestigious it does not necessarily guarantee a successful career in the wine business although it certainly makes you more marketable. Our own wine buyer Marcia Waters is the chairman of the MW exam board and one of our staff is attempting to gain this elusive qualification. So I offer my congratulations to these 19 new members - and I hope all the hard work pays off!!

Wine and other brews have been made in monasteries for hundreds of years but the Fraternite of Notre Dame, an American Catholic religious order founded in 1977, have met with opposition after submitting planning for a 95 acre site to grow and make wine and beer. The residents cite noise and traffic as the main issue but the nuns have said that they do not understand how "God's work" could be fought so vigorously. If thunder and lightning strike you will know why!

Surprise, surprise! The Competition Authority has found evidence of supermarket price fixing and promotional activity which might possibly mislead customers. Whilst the report says that many are taking compliance seriously some breaches could well lead to enforcement action. The biggest issue seems to be the "was/now" promotion and half price promotions have also been criticised for allegedly failing to offer wine of a quality that would justify a higher price. I have warned readers about this before - some bargains are genuine - others clearly are not.

September 2015

New Majestic boss Rowan Gormley impressed me with his statement that there is no need to spend more than £20 on a bottle of wine and emphasising how often expensive wine is very much "emperor's new clothes." This is something I have been arguing for many years and it is healthy to see that someone of such influence has had the guts to state it publicly.

However Majestic have their work cut out with a 22% loss in profits and the acquisition of Naked Wines, a move clearly designed to boost sales. I have always felt that the whole Naked Wines concept is just another gimmick designed to tie in customers with a sense of being involved. It is the latest of a long line of companies appearing to offer great value but it is generally based on a numbers game and many before them have failed miserably. How Majestic plan to integrate this into their group remains to be seen. Many ideas have been mooted with "click and collect" possibly solving the age old problem of the cost of wine distribution.

Majestic's birth emerged from the "pile it high, sell it cheap" concept of the 80s and its vision to snap up large sites (often disused petrol stations) with ample parking. These sites are harder to find nowadays and some of the more recent site selections have been hard to understand whilst it is a known fact that in some major cities they are looking to relocate. The latest move is to trial smaller stores but this makes it harder to get a return on investment.

Rowan Gormley has some big decisions to make as he takes over the reins from Steve Lewis. Will he reinvent the whole Majestic concept? Will he successfully integrate Naked Wines into the fold? Can he motivate his staff and improve retention? Can he persuade the public that he is offering interesting wines with a point of difference?

Well - watch this space!!

August 2015

Everyone seems obsessed with buying online these days and I can see the advantages. However I recently spent a fair amount with a well known clothes company, found half the stuff I bought did not fit, sent them back but had to cover my own postage which cost a staggering £17! All a bit of a hassle and I would have been better off by going to one of their shops and talking to a real person, trying the clothes on and making an informed judgement.

However with my online purchase came a wine voucher (apparently worth a staggering £50). This amount is of course the discounted amount off a £104 case meaning that I could have bought a case of 12 bottles of wine for £54.00 - £4.50 a bottle. Well, that is great value and is, of course, to lure you in, collect your data and the excuse to bombard you with constant offers and deals. Friends have done this and they receive a real mix of wines some of which they enjoy and others which are generally poor. They cannot realistically send them back as, having come in single bottles, there are no wines of the same to return. Even if there were they probably would not bother as arranging collection and redelivery during a working day presents its own problems. I lose count of the number of times we have had to fight our way to the local post office collection point to secure a parcel that could safely have been left somewhere or with neighbours.

Which brings me to my point!! It would be more wise to build a relationship with a local wine company - whichever one that might be! You just need to have the confidence to talk openly about your needs. Is it everyday wine you are after or is it necessary to produce a better wine for a special occasion? Do you prefer dry and fruity or rich and oaky?

All these questions need to be asked and advice taken - trust needs to be built but ultimately this puts you in a much stronger position than buying loosely through some cheap marketing gimmick that lands on your doorstep.

It seems that the apparent mystery of wine frightens people, yet wine is very simple and need not be at all complex. Forget the Internet, forget the huge wine supermarkets but instead support local companies and deal with real people selling real wine who actually care that your purchase fulfils their needs!

July 2015

Yet another story has surfaced regarding wine fraud and again it is aimed at the innocent but wealthy public who know little about the subject. There is this myth that all wine improves with age and the value rises with it. This is simply untrue. Firstly most normal everyday wine does not improve with age although the character of the product might evolve to appeal to certain tastes. For example there are many old school traditionalists who enjoy their claret (red Bordeaux) after many years in bottle whereas others (I count myself amongst these) prefer a younger wine with more fruit and balanced acidity. So does it improve or is it a matter of taste and style? Secondly you have to spend a huge amount to buy wine that may possibly have the potential to age well and rise in value but like shares the market will dictate this and what seems like a sensible investment at the time may not turn out to be so.

I am sure that slick salesmen can come up with examples of great returns on wine. A friend of mine bought 2 cases of 1982 Chateau Le Pin for under £100 a case at the time of release (her boyfriend was called Pin!) It was then 'discovered' by the great wine guru Robert Parker and years later those cases were sold for over £10k. On the other hand I have a friend who keeps being sold dodgy Burgundy which will apparently improve with age but by the time he gets round to drink it the fruit and flavour have disappeared as fast as the salesman!!

Herein lies the problem. Slick salesmen can take your money up front and supposedly store the wine in perfect temperature controlled conditions. You will get an initial bill plus storage charges but have you have never seen the wine in the bonded warehouse, physically marked with your name on it. You may get a stock control list and the con artists will probably give you a chart showing you how you 'investment' is doing before targeting you for more cash to fund the lifestyle you are supplying them. Because the investment has been sold as 'long term' it will be years before the con is discovered. Even if you want a case or two out from bond to drink the clever salesman buys it from the market and supplies you with it thus putting off the day that you discover he drives an Aston Martin, has a house in the South of France and an account in the Cayman Islands.

So what is the answer? Well, as a victim of a share boiler house scam, I should be in a good position to advise you. Do NOT be taken in by glossy literature or blind phone calls. If you have money to spend on wine and have a genuine interest in the subject then contact a really respectable firm who specialise in this investment area. Do NOT expect huge returns and do NOT regard it as an investment. Treat it as a way of indulging your passion and be philosophical. Some cases will delight and others will disappoint. Some may rise in value and others will not!!

A customer of ours bought about 10 cases of good 2005 Claret. The wines are good and have turned out well but the realisable value has not risen as fast as he would have liked because of the recession. A foul vitriolic letter arrived on our doorstep accusing us of giving him false advice but we distinctly remember at the time explaining that whilst we rated the wine we could not predict future returns which depends entirely on the market's response to the economy's health. There can never be guarantees about this.

So BEWARE . Don't expect guaranteed profit. It's far safer to find a wine you have tasted and liked and then buy a case or two and drink it, preferably in congenial company.

June 2015

Berry Brothers and Rudd, the most famous of all wine merchants have had £100,000 worth of wine stolen from their Basingstoke warehouse despite CCTV and an 8 foot fence round the perimeter. Apparently the thieves cut through a thick wall to remove the stock which was loaded into a van. I can only assume the alarms sounded and the police reacted so they would have to have moved pretty quickly. The thieves would have to have known what to take and apparently did, removing one case with a value of over £5,000. The problem is realising the value of such items as I imagine they wanted to sell it rather than drink it. Spirit raids are more common as it is easier to pass on well known brands but word tends to go round the wine industry who is often alerted to look out for those wishing to "dispose" of stock.

Passengers on board a Miami based Norwegian cruise liner will be given free beer, wine and spirits from next year. It sounds an attractive proposition but when pushed the company did admit that prices would be "slightly" increased to cater for this rather bizarre move. Nothing comes free but it may be a clever ploy. Passengers will no doubt over indulge initially but after a couple of days their bodies might suggest a slow down and a return to a more responsible approach to alcohol. Most of us have experienced an all inclusive holiday at some point and I am always suspicious of the quality and strength of the "free" drinks on offer. Let's hope the cruise doesn't disappoint!!

In 2010 68 bottles of shipwrecked 170 year old Champagne, including Veuve Cliquot and Heidsieck and Co, were found 50 metres below the Baltic sea. The haul which was remarkably well preserved was recently analysed contained high levels of sugar and traces of arsenic. The normal sugar levels of modern Champagne normally contain between 4-10 grams of sugar whereas that found on the sea bed had up to 150g of sugar - more than most Sauternes!! This reflected the trend at the time when sweeter wines were preferred. The Champagne also appears to have been aged in oak and the flavours apparently lasted a few hours before dissipating. The most fascinating aspect of old wine is not the taste, which we might try hard to enjoy, but the history. This wine was produced just a few years after Queen Victoria had been crowned!

May 2015

Scientists are convinced that the taste of fine wines is being altered by climate change. Grapes such as the well known Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are now growing at a faster pace making it more difficult to decide when to pick. The subtle change is in the compounds produced when ripening and the synchronisation between maximum flavour and the ratio of sugar to acid. Therefore climate change is affecting the flavours people expect from certain grapes. In some cases vineyards are grubbing up and replanting different varieties and in other cases vignerons are seeking higher ground to produce the ideal cooler climate wine. All this, of course, suits us here in the UK. When we first started planting grapes back in the 80's we tended to plant Germanic style grape varieties which thrived in cooler climates but these are now being replaced by others including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which make wonderful Champagne-like sparkling wine but also still wine. Gusbourne Estate who have vineyards in Kent and Sussex (and are noted for sparkling wines) make a decent still Pinot Noir which sells at around the £20 mark and is improving year on year. Bacchus is a grape which seems to suit the English climate and superb examples are made at Furleigh Estate near Bridport in Dorset. The owners, Rebecca and Ian, make an oaked and unoaked version which are not cheap at about £15.00 a bottle but need to be thought of in the top Loire mould rather than a quirky and rustic local brew which is the way that many people still see English wine. The problem is that much regional UK wine is very poor and we are constantly reviewing our English selection to concentrate on quality over price. Interestingly, at Furleigh they also make a Tyrannosaurus Red which is a wonderful name for a wine grown on the Jurassic coast but as yet not quite up to the quality. I look forward to tasting the 2014 which was a wonderful summer for grape growing!

What does the future hold? Perhaps Merlot will thrive in the Midlands and there is a prediction that Scotland will be successfully planting vines within 30 years. Will the Cotes d'Ecossaise flourish and wine replace Whisky as the national drink? Unlikely! However we need to support and understand our wine industry and it seems the message is getting through. I was surprised yet delighted when presenting a wine tasting in the city for Goldman Sachs that they served Nyetimber (Sussex) as their sparkling of choice ahead of what you might have expected - what happened to Bollinger and Veuve?

In addition I would like to see the Chancellor do something to help the English wine growers - after all he has reduced duty on cider and beer - so why not a reduction in duty for English grown wines or even levelling the duty on still and sparkling wine. A forlorn hope I know but meanwhile we should keep battling on to produce quality wine. A final thought; Hugh Johnson, in one of his earlier Wine Atlas's, was quoted as saying of New Zealand, "Any wine grown in this region is purely of local significance". Just look what happened there!!

April 2015

You might think that quirky fruit flavoured beers made in Belgium or in small micro breweries are relatively modern trends. However it seems from recent evidence that high ranking cavemen drank similar brews almost 9000 years ago. They also drank an alcoholic drink fermented from dairy products and one made from pine resin but it does seem that in many cases alcohol was considered sacred and used in ritual religious ceremonies. To me (and probably you if you read this column) it is still sacred!!

A hypnotist used distraction techniques to pick pocket the owner of a North London wine merchant. The incident was captured on CCTV and the thief made off with a wodge of notes that had been in the owner's inside top pocket. The technique, made famous by the illusionist Darren Brown, suggests that the victim had previously been hypnotised and the "thief" had planted a "trigger" word into his subconscious. A fellow magician said "you can never hypnotise someone on the first go. I would have thought that he had already gone in before and done some pre suggestive stuff ". My staff have been warned!!

There are some bizarre drinking laws - not least in the US - where I have come across the fact that in Alaska it is illegal to serve alcoholic beverages to a Moose. Whilst I am sure that sharing a beer with a moose is not top of your wish list there was a recent incident when a moose got so drunk on fermenting apples that he got stuck half way up a tree and had to be cut out so he could sleep off his hangover. In Ohio it is illegal to spike your fish tank with Vodka as serving fish with alcohol is banned. Only in America!!


Two Russian bears have become alcoholics after being plied with alcohol by regulars at a restaurant where they were attractions. Thanks to the work of Brigitte Bardot, however, these bears have been transferred to Romania for treatment. The effects of alcoholic withdrawal are similar in bears to humans - they have unpredictable tempers and it is taking some time to wean them off their favourite beverage which was the local beer. You will be pleased to hear that the former owners have been successfully prosecuted for cruelty.


Good news on the budget with no duty increase which will keep wine prices pretty stable. However there have been some hefty price rises at source in certain areas where the harvest was affected by early frost and rain. Areas of concern are Chablis in Northern Burgundy and the Languedoc where the havests were very small. Nevertheless with improved exchange rates many wines will remain the same price this year.


March 2015

Australia has struggled to get market share in recent years with the exception of lower end products. Most Independent wine merchants to whom I talk are finding Australia a hard sell - not helped by poor exchange rates and the public perception that all Aussie wines are big, alcoholic and over oaked. We know that this is not necessarily the case but it will take the education of a whole new generation of wine drinkers to loosen the shackles on this. Australia is pushing to promote regional character in their wines and Tasmania is an area which is likely to help the Australian Wine revival in this respect. It only has about 1600 hectares of vineyards under production but the Tasmanian government are keen to attract more investment. There is beginning to be a real connection here. They have great food, the land is green and verdant and the wildlife is abundant. The perception therefore is of a cooler climate producing fresh, clean, pure and vibrant wines. The varieties that will do well here are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir which tend to thrive in cooler climate regions such as New Zealand. The well known company Brown Brothers is investing heavily in the Tamar Valley and Freycinet Peninsular but it will take time to work out what varieties will work and where they should be planted. I have a suspicion that in years to come Tasmania will be home to some wonderful quality wine.


I dare say that some of you may be familiar with the 100 point rating of fine wines, a system pioneered by the famous American wine critic Robert Parker and mirrored by many wine critics and journalists throughout the world. But, as journalist Tim Atkin suggested recently, what makes a 100/100 point wine? Whilst many of us can probably agree that a wine is good or bad our own definitions of the scale of this are entirely subjective. Tim Atkin tasted three wines each given a 100 mark by other journalists. He did not know this at the time and gave the wines a rating of 87, 88 and 93. The identity of the other writers is of no importance but three people's "judgement" will have a huge impact on the selling price of the wines. They thought they were some of the best wines they had ever tasted and yet many others in the room, including Tim, disagreed. We know that wine can taste very different at times. Much will depend on your state of mind and the tasting conditions. Magazines, web sites and retailers love to quote high points for their wine so how better for a journalist to get his name in print than to give high marks and be quoted as such? I have tasted many of the world's most expensive wines and am invariably disappointed, often preferring less prestigious wines which make more of an impact. But again I have to stress that so much is about food, company, mental state and perception. The lesson here is to be cautious. You don't need to buy an over inflated, ego influenced wine to get value for money. Writers and critics give you a guide as to quality but equally a good wine merchant should be able to give you more down to earth and practical advice.


February 2015

Children and teachers at a primary school in Burgundy were all ill with flu-like symptoms, eye irritation, nausea and headaches following the chemical spraying of a local vineyard. There are strict conditions in place about spraying and each year a series of complaints are made and investigated by the regional health agency. Which brings us on to the subject of organic wines and whether the wine tastes better if produced in this way with no intervention other that the use of natural products. I have no strong views on the matter but am always keen to know that the producer follows a natural wine making philosophy but reserving the right to intervene in exceptional circumstances. After all they have a living to make and need to protect their income. Cheaper products usually require more intervention, manipulation and stabilisation. An organic wine requires very little but will be significantly more expensive. Somewhere there is a compromise!


Hard to believe but Oklahoma City Council has given permission for a local gun range to serve alcohol to customers. Apparently the restriction is that they cannot shoot following a drink. (Well - that's a relief!).


A prankster printed off some very amusing wine shelf labels and stuck them on a well known store shelf to replace the originals. Apparently it took quite a while for the new descriptions to be noticed which perhaps says something about the staff and clientele at this particular supermarket! One of the labels described a Soave as having "Agile clam flavours with a suspicion of red Kryptonite. Great with roadkill." Another reads "Made by actual blue nuns in sea caves protected by wild otters. Full bodied with a hint of wet sand." A Shiraz he describes as "Bitter clown tears with a hint of suspicion. Great with lobster thermador. Best drunk in the street." Finally Blossom Hill Red was described as a pretentious yet sensitive wine with a hint of Snozzberry. Easy to down the whole bottle without realising. Great with fresh caviar." The anonymous joker has made a point though - do people really read some of the pretentious nonsense written about wine? Perhaps the big chains are right. "Good with fish, good with meat, good when feeling low, good when dark outside." Don't let me start!!


January 2015

It is very depressing to read that enjoying a glass of wine after work is as bad for you as drinking three spirit measures. But as far as I am concerned this is absolute scaremongering and these sort of pronouncements are the worst side of the nanny state especially when no further information or advice is added. As Victoria Moore of the Daily Telegraph stated "the idiots in charge of public health give people no helpful information whilst having a go at them for enjoying themselves. It's ultimately unhelpful". So for those who believe everything they read in the press here are a few suggestions for cutting your alcohol intake.

1) Don't ever ask for a 250cl glass which is a third of a bottle!! At the Oxford Wine Cafe we only serve small (125cl ) and medium sizes (175cl).This is because we deal with quality rather than quantity and serving smaller amounts in large Riedel glasses is much more attractive than a cheap glass filled to the brim. There is also a legal requirement to serve 125cl in all bars and pubs.

2) Check the alcohol content before ordering - there is a move towards less alcoholic wines these days. German Rieslings often start at about 7.5% natural alcohol whereas some big Aussie reds can exceed 15%!!

3) Prosecco and most fizz is not that heavy in alcohol.

4) Add a bit of soda to a glass which will retain the taste and flavours but make it last a little longer.

5) Don't bother with non alcoholic wines - they mostly taste revolting. You would be better off having a refreshing elderflower drink.

6) Enjoy your glass or two with a meal - preferably a Mediterranean one. All the rage for a healthy extended life (or is that what I just read in the press!!)

It is great news that MP's have voted to scrap forced beer ties for pubs. Many of you may not be aware that pubs have to sell beer from the brewery who owns the freehold of their property or from a nominated supplier. This can also apply to wine and most breweries are hardly noted for their fine vinuous selections! If the landlord does not become lazy and continue with a one stop shop you should see a vast improvement in the price and quality of beer and wine in your local hostelry.


December 2014

Majestic Wine has really upset their suppliers by requesting a refund of 4p per bottle to help fund their new warehouse in Hemel Hampstead. Many suppliers are angry that at a time when margins have been squeezed and the economy is still recovering they are being asked to support a business expansion which was planned some time ago and presumably with the necessary funding in place. These sort of tactics are common place when dealing with the big supermarkets and Majestic is really now a wine supermarket. Small companies are scared of saying "No" and being dropped as a supplier but it does explain why so many prefer to deal with the Independent trade like ourselves where they are treated with respect and can spread their risk. It's time people began to understand more of the way these powerful guys operate and how they construct their "offers". It might just persuade you to change your buying habits and support local companies whatever their product. Rant over!!

Irish teacher Katie Mulrennan applied for a job in South Korea and was rejected with the following note: "I am sorry to inform you that my client does not hire Irish people due to the alcoholic nature of your kind. Best of luck in the future." Shocked, she sent back a sarcastic email to which there has been no reply. She has since found work in Korea. Hard to believe in this day and age but true and enough to drive anyone to drink!

I have only just heard that Pimms Number 6, the Vodka based version, was to be axed by owners Diageo only for a massive demand for the decision to be reversed which was headed by a social media campaign as well as a series of emails and old fashioned letters. I am sure we have some on a shelf somewhere and there is a small following for it. The Vodka based one was introduced in 1964 but most of the other 6 original spirit based styles have already bitten the dust. Diageo also introduced a summery style (blackberry I think) but this has been a disaster - so do ask for a cost price deal at any branch of The Oxford Wine Company!!


November 2014

England and British Lions rugby prop forward Andrew Sheridan has been forced to retire from the game and has announced that he wishes to join the wine trade. He is planning to take the exams and will no doubt be signed up by a prestigious London firm. Forget the exams Andrew - I could find you a job as a debt collector tomorrow!!!

I am sure that I am not alone is being somewhat shocked to hear that medication may be issued to those drinking two glasses of wine a night in an effort to reduce their 'habit.' Whilst I have always supported the view that it is sensible to have two nights a week off alcohol it seems that the nanny state is taking things a little far here. Has there being any mention of glass size or alcohol levels? I am not sure that two small glasses of German Riesling at 9% would be as 'damaging' as two large glasses of 15% Aussie red. Surely common sense is what is required? We all know when we have had periods of heavy indulgence and it is our responsibility to ensure that we maintain a balance in our consumption. It doesn't seem long ago that I was reading that two glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon red wine were good for the heart. Last week there was strong evidence submitted that indicated that red wine was good for acne. We are all mightily confused with these mixed messages!! I can see the pills being lined up each morning. One for the second glass, one for eating 3 slices of bread, one of drinking full fat milk, one for that box of chocolates and one for watching X factor.

Come on bureaucrats - get a life!

It was a good vintage in England last year but this year's is reckoned to be the best ever after a long warm dry summer. In addition the nights have been warm, almost Mediterranean, so with no substantial temperature drop the grapes have ripened more easily. There could even be a problem with over ripeness and not enough acidity in some areas - not a problem often encountered in the UK!! The good harvest will be especially welcome for Nyetimber, arguably the best known English sparkling wine, who took the painful decision not to harvest any grapes at all in 2012 due to the poor quality of the vintage. The UK wine business is thriving with over 135 wineries and more rapid expansion and investment which will soon demonstrate that English wine is much more than a curiosity.

October 2014

La Petite Syrah, a small café in Nice, is charging higher prices to rude customers on the basis of the old adage that manners cost nothing!

At the café a coffee costs 7 euros but if you include the magic words "s'il vous plait" you will get the same drink for only 4.25 euros but it comes down to only 1.40 euros if you prefix the order with a cheery "Bonjour". The owner said that it all started as a joke and the whole idea developed because so many lunch time customers wanted instant service and were so stressed and bad tempered. Apparently everyone is playing along and the pricing policy is creating plenty of amusement although the higher prices have never actually been charged! Of course we have no such problems with our Oxford Café customers - yet!!

I felt very privileged to be one of the senior judges at The Wine Merchant Top 50 Independent Wine Awards.

This competition required our team to taste 250 wines in the day and gradually filter out the weak links finally arriving at the Top 50 Independent wines. The results have yet to be revealed but anyone who thinks that this is the perfect job should give it a go. It is both difficult and demanding as well as being extremely tiring. The 6.00pm pint at the Sloany Pony was one of the most welcome drinks I can remember!!

Talk about adding insult to injury. Two London based wine firms have worked together to cheat defrauded customers out of even more money by falsely claiming that they could help recover their losses. Capital Bordeaux Investments targeted the victims of previous scams by encouraging further investment to help them recover their losses but never bought or sold any wine and simply disappeared with the cash. I have warned you before in this column to be extremely cautious when investing in fine wine but if you wish to do so I will steer you in the right direction and recommend the well established and professional firms.

Does anyone ever remember the names of Australian Prime Ministers? The Australian Prime Minister - think it might be a chap called Tony Abbott - has been ridiculed for the contents of his wine cellar which apparently holds an unbalanced range of below average wines many of which should have been drunk some time ago. A little harsh I feel especially as that criticism could probably be applied to most of our own cellars!! Australia is not the only country to come under scrutiny regarding its official cellar as taxpayers there expect a delicate balance between national pride and extravagance. The UK government's cellar has been reduced by about 15% and is apparently now self funding in complete contrast to the deposed Ukrainian President whose cellar, when raided by protesters, revealed a penchant for Cristal Champagne, Vintage Port and exclusive Cognac - mostly drunk by his cronies and certainly not kept for investment purposes!!

I have long been a Pinot Noir lover having once experienced a 1953 Domaine de la Romanée Conti La Tache serious red Burgundy in the company of the late Auberon Waugh. There were only four of us and I was a very young member of the trade, somewhat naive and rather overawed by the occasion. Nevertheless this particular wine (we also drank Ducru Beaucaillou and d'Yquem) was responsible for my lifelong passion for this grape. There is a certain age group who seem to think that Burgundy is a heavy wine. The number of times I hear words such as "I am having a steak so I need a good Burgundy." No you don't!! Burgundy is a soft gentle delicate wine although sometimes with a backbone and structure which is more complex. In the old days the tankers from North Africa used to roll into Burgundy in the dead of night and tip their rich powerful alcoholic juice into the tanks to give the wine some weight and power. Not so now which might explain why I am becoming a little disappointed with the amount of poor quality Burgundy on the market. With Burgundy you have to know your growers as one wine from the same village or commune will rarely taste the same as another and if you see a cheap offer (this being relative when it comes to Burgundy) I suggest you stay well clear!

So if Burgundy is not offering the quality at the entry level end (that is £13 - £25) where do you turn? For pure value then the south of France can deliver as can Romania - the latter recognised by Jancis Robinson as an area with outstanding potential. Up the scale a little comes Chile which is really beginning to excite me, especially around the coastal areas such as the Maule Valley and in other cool climate regions like Casablanca. For immediate impact on the taste buds Chile has much to offer and some of their wines are now very complex and offer outstanding value. New Zealand produces many good and some outstanding Pinots from Marlborough, Martinborough and Otago as does the Mornington Peninsular and Tasmania in Australia. With a few exceptions South Africa has a bit of a way to go yet whilst California and Oregon examples can be superb but pricey. However an area not often considered is southern Germany where Pinot Noir is known as Spatburgunder and some of the wines I have had from here have been really exciting. As usual with German wines it is more about how the wines are marketed as there is still a tendency for drinkers to avoid complex labels as well as there being a suspicion that Germany is cheap and nasty - a misguided hangover from the days of Blue Nun and Black Tower. 

September 2014

The Oxford Wine Company has just secured the exclusive UK distribution rights to Downton Abbey wines - two special blends put together from Bordeaux mimicking the style of wine drunk during the early 20th Century. The Claret blend is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but with some Malbec - widely used at that time but later badly damaged in the 50's due to hail storms and often not replanted. The white is a Muscadelle and Semillon blend - again mimicking the style of the times. Both are from the 2012 vintage and sell at £12.99 - order from the Oxford Wine Company website or find them in our shops. According to Mr Carson, the head butler in the television series: "Well in my opinion, to misquote Doctor Johnson, "If you're tired of style you are tired of life!!"

Vega Sicilia, the iconic Spanish winery from Ribera del Duero, has just had to write off 500,000 bottles due to excessively high deposits of sediment in the bottles. The mishap was caused during the filtration process and whilst the wine apparently tastes fine it doesn't look great. Paulo Alvarez, the CEO, said "the sediment does not affect the quality but their aesthetic appearance and our prestige does not allow us to have them on the market. In spite of the cost involved it was a necessary course of action and we accept the consequences."

A £15 million error - I wonder if the filtration manager still has his job?!

So your local supermarket is suddenly offering a blanket wine discount for the weekend and this may seem too tempting to resist. It often is and as I have said before there are some real genuine bargains that can be had at certain times of year. However, bargain hunters need to keep a permanent eye on the prices of some wines which I am reliably informed often seem to creep up in advance of a "promotion". No names mentioned of course but the Spanish red that was at £6.99 and somehow crept up to £8.49 prior to the "promotion" actually only offers a less than 10% discount. However products such as well known Champagne brands can be tracked and analysed more carefully - this is where the real savings are made!!

There seems to be a new move by a group of MPs to try to get more warning signs and information on a bottle of wine. This would include advice about units permitted and calorie content. Information is knowledge but a far smarter move would be to introduce minimum pricing so that wine and beer (in particular) could not be promoted at irresponsible prices by large companies that can afford to sell below cost price just to entice customers into their store!!

August 2014

It sounds too perfect to be true! A beverage with an alcohol level of 5% has been invented by three students who say its consumption alongside other alcoholic drinks will stop you getting a hangover whilst not affecting the buzz gained. Called 'Prime' it is claimed that it has the amino acids and biochemicals your liver needs to naturally break down acetaldehyde and prevent it harming your body. It also apparently has the electrolytes needed to keep you hydrated and a vitamin B complex to prevent headaches."It only breaks down the toxic by products and not the alcohol itself" according to the press release. One Prime needs to be drank with every three glasses consumed suggest the students who are busy raising money to develop their ideas. On the other hand you could drink a little less and have lots of water - this usually seems to work!!

July 2014

I am still amazed by how many people are totally unaware of English wine, whether it be sparking or still. It is well recognised however by many that we have the potential for making some excellent wine but is it all a false dawn or are we here for the long term?

Let’s start with sparkling wine - undoubtedly the success story of the industry so far. In the early days non Champagne grapes were being used and the results were less than impressive. These days site selection and technology has improved and the grape varieties used are the same three that are used in the making of Champagne, namely Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Real Champagne of course can only come from the famous designated region in Northern France but we are now growing the same grapes here on very similar soils mostly in the south east regions of Sussex, Kent and Hampshire although there are some stunning examples from Devon too. The latitude is not dissimilar to the Champagne region either so, all things being equal, we should be doing it just as well!!

Recognition of some of our top producers such as Nyetimber, Gusbourne and Camel Valley wine is slow and, in the case of the French, reluctant. This is despite the fact that in blind tastings it often beats the real thing and certainly offers good value for money. The better quality well known Champagnes start at around the £33.00 mark and yet there is good vintage English sparkling available at under £30 despite small production and the tax on alcohol which I think really ought to be waived to encourage the investors and support our fledgling industry.

But what about still wines?

These seem to be looked at with some suspicion and would still to be considered a novelty if bought as a present, although a generous one as they are still quite expensive and hereby lies much of the problem. The economies of scale means that production costs are high and volumes are often limited particularly after a wet summer The key is to find a style, champion a grape and market it well -  the most likely being Bacchus or Ortega which are considered cool climate varieties. Some vineyards such as Denbies near Dorking have planted Sauvignon and Chardonnay and there are still many older plantings of unexciting varieties in the smaller vineyards.

Locally I certainly recommend you visit Brightwell Vineyard just outside Wallingford and Bothy Vineyard close to Frilford Heath. The former makes an interesting range of reds, whites and rosé with the whites, in my view, a more commercial success. They use various blends of the previously mentioned Bacchus (a Silvaner, Riesling and Muller Thurgau cross) as well as Chardonnay, Reichensteiner and Huxelrebe. The reds are from the famous but fickle Pinot Noir and Dornfelder. Bothy can certainly make some stunning wines when the weather is kind and again they use Bacchus, Ortega and Huxelrebe as well as some unusual mutations and crosses. For the reds they use Rondo and Dornfelder. 

Both these vineyards deserve a visit - they are fighting their corner and should have our support. You will learn a great deal and have a fun day out! Information is on the web.

I am still amazed by how many people are totally unaware of English wine, whether it be sparking or still. It is well recognised however by many that we have the potential for making some excellent wine but is it all a false dawn or are we here for the long term?

Let's start with sparkling wine - undoubtedly the success story of the industry so far. In the early days non Champagne grapes were being used and the results were less than impressive. These days site selection and technology has improved and the grape varieties used are the same three that are used in the making of Champagne, namely Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Real Champagne of course can only come from the famous designated region in Northern France but we are now growing the same grapes here on very similar soils mostly in the south east regions of Sussex, Kent and Hampshire although there are some stunning examples from Devon too. The latitude is not dissimilar to the Champagne region either so, all things being equal, we should be doing it just as well!!

Recognition of some of our top producers such as Nyetimber, Gusbourne and Camel Valley wine is slow and, in the case of the French, reluctant. This is despite the fact that in blind tastings it often beats the real thing and certainly offers good value for money. The better quality well known Champagnes start at around the £33.00 mark and yet there is good vintage English sparkling available at under £30 despite small production and the tax on alcohol which I think really ought to be waived to encourage the investors and support our fledgling industry.

But what about still wines?

These seem to be looked at with some suspicion and would still to be considered a novelty if bought as a present, although a generous one as they are still quite expensive and hereby lies much of the problem. The economies of scale means that production costs are high and volumes are often limited particularly after a wet summer The key is to find a style, champion a grape and market it well - the most likely being Bacchus or Ortega which are considered cool climate varieties. Some vineyards such as Denbies near Dorking have planted Sauvignon and Chardonnay and there are still many older plantings of unexciting varieties in the smaller vineyards.

Locally I certainly recommend you visit Brightwell Vineyard just outside Wallingford and Bothy Vineyard close to Frilford Heath. The former makes an interesting range of reds, whites and rosé with the whites, in my view, a more commercial success. They use various blends of the previously mentioned Bacchus (a Silvaner, Riesling and Muller Thurgau cross) as well as Chardonnay, Reichensteiner and Huxelrebe. The reds are from the famous but fickle Pinot Noir and Dornfelder. Bothy can certainly make some stunning wines when the weather is kind and again they use Bacchus, Ortega and Huxelrebe as well as some unusual mutations and crosses. For the reds they use Rondo and Dornfelder.

Both these vineyards deserve a visit - they are fighting their corner and should have our support. You will learn a great deal and have a fun day out! Information is on the web.

June 2014

I meet a few friends once a month in The Oxford Wine Café and we set a theme and taste a whole load of wines blind. This is the only way to seriously assess wines and judge them without a glance at the label. The event always throws up some surprises but one Mr Pitts is a devil and always brings something weird or obscure. So for the Bordeaux style tasting (in which I am reluctant to admit he out performed us all!) his 'blind' wine was a 2008 Merlot from Japan. Called Izutsu from the Nagano Appellation it was hardly a classic but it was the first time I had tasted a wine from this country. As the back label was in Japanese there is little more I can tell you!!!

Residents of the Vatican, a tiny city in its own right, consume more wine than anyone else in the world. According to recent statistics each resident drinks 74 litres of wine per year. This is double the amount drunk in Italy and France and three times that drunk in the UK. I assume that some of the consumption is associated with religious ceremony but as for the rest? Well - I would simply draw your own conclusions.

A drunken gambler is suing a Las Vegas casino having lost more than half a million dollars in one crazy session at the tables.

He was apparently served over 20 drinks and under Nevada law employees are not allowed to let patrons to gamble whilst intoxicated. The casino is counter suing for non payment of the debt. The gentleman in question accepts he arrived the worse for wear having consumed large amounts at the airport on arrival but likens his experience to a drunk being pick pocketed whilst staggering down the street. The outcome could have interesting implications.

An Australian man reacted to a bite from one of the world's most poisonous snakes by stating that if he was going to die he might as well enjoy a final beer. He killed the snake with a spade, called the ambulance and kept calm whilst grabbing a tinny from the fridge. He was in hospital for three weeks but survived! Now that is what they call 'cool.'

May 2014

Whatever next!! The Scots have made wine but not as you know it Jimmy!!

The country is, of course, too cold for some of the classic varieties that we all know but grapes such as Rondo (red), Solaris and Siegerrebe can ripen. The wine is being bottled by food critic Chris Trotter (there is a joke there somewhere!) and comes from Fife which had a very warm summer last year. He is considering scattering his vineyards with seashells to help retain the warmth at night - similar in effect to the large stones in Châteauneuf du Pape.

It all sounds very innovative and no doubt Alex Salmon will champion this as another reason for independence!

Shortages of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand have lead to an increase in imports from Chile and South Africa which legally go into brands for the domestic market. However the 2014 harvest is 15% larger than the previous vintage and more new wineries are coming on stream. Even so juice from New Zealand is getting more expensive and it is hard to hit some of the competitive price points of the past. However experience suggests that despite a bigger harvest prices may remain stable but are unlikely to go down. Do they ever?!

We have to welcome the budget which did at least cancel the duty escalator on wine as well as reduce the tax on beer and freeze tax on spirits. However I lose count as to how many times I have been told by customers that there was no duty increase on wine this year. Oh yes there was - it may only have been 5p a bottle but with exchange rate issues, shortages in some parts of the world and increased transport and vineyard costs wine prices may well increase in some areas rather more than anticipated. The Chancellor was very clever with his wording emphasising the removal of the escalator which was a 2% above inflation surcharge but failing to remind us clearly that there was still an annual increase. Nevertheless stability in tax has been restored and an inflation linked rise is acceptable!!

A friend of mine and a fellow Wine Café imbiber keeps telling me how disappointed he is with the wines he was encouraged to buy en primeur - that is wines still in barrel or bottled and not released. This is always the cheapest way to buy but judging how a wine will evolve is a difficult art and it is easy to be seduced by smooth talking salesmen (or those with too much wine throbbing through the veins) into investing for the future. Unless you have an unlimited budget and extensive knowledge I suggest you buy your wine when it has been recently tasted and you can guarantee what to expect.

April 2014

Researchers at Texas University have found that those who do not drink any alcohol have a higher mortality rate than those who drink heavily. The research concluded that those who drink moderately (2/3 drinks a day) had the lowest mortality rate. Just something worth pondering!!

The ruins of a wine cellar dating back to 1700BC have been unearthed in a Canaanite palace in Israel.

The suggestion is that this is where the palace kept the good stuff - all in ceramic jars. Although there was not actual physical liquid within the residue a blend of ingredients were found such as honey, cinnamon, bark, cedar and mint. There appears to be a consistency in the 40 jars unearthed that suggest that this was a quality product reserved for special occasions. This just demonstrates the amazing sophistication of the time often referred to in ancient texts.

President Obama was recently reported as having upset President Hollande by serving him cheap wine.

The White House has a policy of only serving American wine but with a total retail value of under £100 for the 3 bottles it was deemed a bit of an insult!! The wines came from the Napa Valley in California, Columbia Valley in Washington State and a sparkling wine which came from Virginia. This certainly represents an interesting mix and I am sure went splendidly with the caviar and Colorado ribeye. Perhaps Monsieur Hollande felt out of his comfort zone although apparently Obama said that Americans love all things French, assuming they know where France is!! I hope Mr Cameron takes note and serves him a top quality English sparkling wine which will be assumed to be a superior Champagne although I bet our naughty little Frenchman will not know the difference!

A 6 litre decanter of Macallan whisky has just sold at auction in Hong Kong for £381,000 beating the previous record by a considerable margin. The Lalique designed decanter is one of only four in the world and so the high price was a combination of the unique quality of both the decanter and the single malt.

Water, water everywhere!! We were flooded at our head office warehouse where wellington boots were the order of the day. Loading vans became a major issue but our wine is all on pallets so damage was kept to a minimum. At the Oxford Wine Café I arrived to do a stock take to find water pouring down from the kitchen due to a faulty pipe and the same day to see the water level rise in our wine cellar due to the exceptionally high water table. With the ladies loo blocking up too we had enough work to keep the plumber occupied for hours!!

March 2014

Oh to be wise after the event. 12 bottles of my favourite wine, a 1978 La Tache Domaine de la Romanée Conti have just sold in Hong Kong for US $474,000. I remember that in a previous life we used to stock this wine and if only we knew then what would happen to wine prices in the future and that the Chinese would so easily part with their money now!!

Malbec is heavily associated with rich Argentine wine despite the fact that some of us older folk still enjoy the Malbec of Cahors in southern France, its spiritual home. But I now read that wine makers in Argentina feel that the Cabernet Franc grape is the future even though at the moment only 500 hectares of this grape are planted. The lesser known of the two Cabernets should do really well in the high altitude regions of the Uco Valley and may well be blended with the better known Cabernet Sauvignon to give the wine more tannic structure and backbone. The research is being led by the Catena winery and is supported by Zuccardi so keep your eye out for future developments and try our current Cabernet Franc from Trapiche which when last tasted was stunningly good and not outrageously expensive.

French wine makers are embracing biodynamic viticulture - a mix of Astrology and Chinese medicine methods - to enrich their soil and wine. Whilst being organic can certainly be justified are we sure that the movements of the moon and stars as well as strange "treatments" of the land really help? Perhaps!

February 2014

One of the highlights of my recent trip to South Africa was obtaining a much sought after ticket to the Swartland Revolution - a two day wine festival held in an up and coming wine area north of Cape Town and inspired by Adi Badenhorst and a group of young fearless winemakers.

As part of the weekend three very serious tutored tasting were organised for 400 people in a large open tent. One was a tasting of much older vintages of local wines but the other two were tastings of well known French wines which were supposed to inspire the young winemakers. It seems to me that French wines are still held in high esteem and are still very much regarded as the Holy Grail.

You have to remember that South Africa was isolated from the real world for so long that winemakers rarely got the opportunity to travel or try wines from other wine growing regions of the world. These SA winemakers like to work with the Chenin Blanc grape which as some will know makes a staple everyday white for them, though the grape's spiritual home is in the Loire Valley in France (Vouvray, Anjou etc). Equally these guys like to work with Cinsault and Syrah both stalwarts of the Rhône Valley. What followed therefore was a very serious talk and a tasting of a well known Châteauneuf du Pape producer and wines from three famous Loire producers, showing their dry and sweet Chenin Blancs. There was excitement brewing as these iconic and traditional producers presented a series of wines reflecting their range and heritage. The wines were generally clean and in good condition but the prices were outrageously high for the quality and the wines not exciting and mostly lacking fruit. The Châteauneufs were dreadful. Some were just too old, all lacked fruit and flavour and the wine making style seemed to belong the 1960s. We all sampled them religiously and appropriate comments and questions were raised but to me it seemed very much a case of the Emperor's new clothes.

It was only afterwards and whilst sipping a refreshing beer in the soaring heat that tasters began to admit that actually the wines were really not very good. All I can say is that whilst there are many French wines which I thoroughly enjoy I have to confess that the South African wine industry is making huge strides and most of their wines represent astonishing value for money.


On the subject of Châteauneuf du Pape be wary of all the special offers that surround this wine. The supermarkets always like to discount this at Christmas because almost everyone has heard of it and can actually pronounce it! But a lot of Châteauneufs are no better than Village Côtes du Rhône and certainly do not warrant the price tag often associated with them. This wine has to come from within limited boundaries within the village surroundings and all can carry the name almost regardless of the quality level. It's the same in Burgundy - you need to know the grower. If you like the Rhône style of Grenache and Syrah wines you should try a Vacqueyras or Gigondas - much better value!!

January 2014

We have all heard about the success of sparkling wines from Sussex which regularly outperform Champagne in blind tastings but now Devon, the county of my birth, has won a bronze medal in one of Europe's top competitions with Yearlstone's Vintage 2009 sparkling wine. Roger White, the owner said: "We are delighted to have success at the first French Wine competition we have entered - especially when 2/3rds of the French entries failed to win anything". The wine is also strongly recommended by Decanter Magazine - I am not sure where it is available but I just hope it does not find its way to the supermarket shelves!! Surely a solid Devonian has more sense?

Beware fake wines. There have been a number of prosecutions recently in relation to ordinary wines - usually Bordeaux or Burgundy - relabelled as far superior quality with the average consumer being none the wiser. It is vital when buying wines to know the provenance. Be cautious when buying from auction or indeed from a private individual where the problem is more likely to be the issue of how the wine has been kept. A few cases lying under the stairs in a warm centrally heated house will age much faster than those kept in temperature controlled cellars and the corks are also likely to dry out if the wines have not been kept on their side. This might all sound alarming but also never be tempted by adverts from smart sounding companies unless you know them to be established and respected. A friend of mine tied up a substantial amount in an investment scheme which included storage of wine. It is a very clever scam because in most cases fine wine needs 5-15 years before it is ready to drink and with the promise of the wine being kept in perfect condition the actual product is never seen. An invoice is sent annually with a storage charge and estimates of value but no more. It was only when he tried to take delivery of the wine that he ran into difficulties. The wine had possibly never been bought or more likely bought but sold many times. He certainly never got his wine as the company folded but not before the owners had enjoyed a Champagne lifestyle and no doubt stashed away millions in offshore accounts. If you need advice we can steer you in the right direction. We do not really deal in en primeur wines so this is not a sales pitch but we do know who can be trusted!!

I have just come back from a week in South Africa. Over the years I have been lucky enough to travel to every major wine region in the world but collectively the vineyards in the Western Cape are undoubtedly the most stunning I have ever seen. Most are owned by very wealthy businessmen and set in the most stunning surroundings. I have two major memories of this trip - chipping golf balls from Ernie Els' vineyard terrace onto his green whilst a healthy BBQ was being prepared and secondly walking round the vineyards of de Morgenzon (meaning the morning sun) in Stellenbosch. This was especially fascinating because on two sides of the long drive were identical vineyards planted with the same clone of Shiraz, both of the same age and on the same soil. The vineyard on the right however was kitted out with large speakers on poles throughout the vineyard and the gentle sound of baroque and classical music was being played 24 hours a day. Prince Charles would have approved but the effect was remarkable! The vines receiving the music were considerably less vigorous than those on the other side of the road. The idea is to slow the growth so that the vines do not over deliver but instead concentrate their fruit and produce quality and not quantity. The maturing wine in barrels is also subjected to this music whilst ageing and the staff are convinced that the quality is much higher as a result of this treatment. I wonder how they would differ if Led Zeppelin took on Vaughan Williams Antarctic Symphony in a vineyard shoot out?!!

If I go to a smart restaurant (a rare occurrence!) I want my wine within my reach so I can decide when I would like a top up! Why oh why should I expect the wine to be half poured and then set up in a silver ice bucket on a stand 5 feet from my reach so only the pretentious wine Sommelier decides when I am getting another sip. It drives me insane!!!

December 2013

For years rather obscure grape varieties planted in the UK were considered more suitable to the English growing conditions but with the massive growth in sparkling wine we have seen Chardonnay and Pinot Noir planted in mass on the chalk soils of the South Downs. Now I read that Denbies, based just outside Dorking and one of the older and better known producers, are harvesting some Sauvignon Blanc for the first time. The UK has always had a marginal climate for Sauvignon Blanc but, according to the vineyard's winemaker, with improved clonal selection, soil analysis and a better understanding of wine making in cooler climates we may soon all be drinking our own 'Sancerre'. Top marks to Denbies who have always tried to be at the forefront of what they do. However there is talk of them trying to oak the Sauvignon - not something that usually works in my opinion!!

So after years of some overproducing countries encouraging their farmers to grub up their vines I now hear that there is a global wine shortage on the horizon. Although consumption is a little down in the UK the shortage is due to the heavy demands of the USA and China in particular. Chinese demand is on an astronomic rise doubling twice in the last 5 years and yet wine production in France and the old world regions has fallen between 10% and 18% over the same period. The Chinese are of course planting their own vineyards too but with them being on course to become the largest world consumer by 2016 I hope they leave enough for us!!

Some Château Léoville Las Cases vines in Bordeaux have been accidentally poisoned by their neighbour Château Léoville Poyferre. Workers at the latter burnt plant waste in a spot reserved for doing so, but unknown to them some hidden canisters of polyurethane filler were left in the bonfire by local builders and gave off heavily toxic smoke. This badly affected their neighbours prized vines. As a result the leaves of vines withered very quickly and the berries ripened no further. Practises have now been put in place so this cannot happen again but a grape is like a sponge and will absorb smells. Don't worry though - the wine made from these affected grapes will be used by a local distillery - or so we are told!!

Will Oxford City Council follow the lead by Newcastle and introduce a late night levy on sales of alcohol? Amid some very strong debate the intention is for premises serving alcohol after midnight to pay an annual levy depending on their rateable value. Suits me - we close at 11.00 at The Oxford Wine Café!!

November 2013

Good news for wine traditionalists. Cork may be making a comeback in the form of a screwcap cork where both bottle and cork have a thread enabling the stopper to be opened and resealed without a corkscrew. The makers claim that in all experiments there has been no cork taint, the main argument for using screwcaps to seal wine. We shall see!!

In a recent tasting it was deemed that Californian cool climate Pinot Noir can compete with Premier Cru Burgundy. I have no doubt about this but so can Pinot Noir from Martinborough and Otago in New Zealand and Mornington Peninsular in Australia, as well as some from Oregon and Chile. It's about time the French were challenged as I can't help feeling that an awful lot of Premier Cru Burgundy is sub standard and overpriced. A few of us in the Wine Café in Summertown are considering starting a Pinotphile club so we can work on my theory during a series of blind Pinot tastings. Good idea?

92 Bottles of random French wine, including some organic wine, were analysed by a consumer association and every bottle was found to contain pesticides although these were well below the permitted levels allowed. The biggest pesticide count was in a bottle of 2010 Bordeaux. By drinking a glass of wine you therefore have every chance of unknowingly swallowing some micrograms of pesticide residues. Very few wines escape pollution by plant protection products applied to the vines!

We are now mostly familiar with the success of sparkling wine in this country especially with so many awards being won by the likes of Camel Valley, Ridgeview and Nyetimber to name but a few. Sadly we are not permitted to use the term Champagne in the UK even though it is to all intents and purposes the same thing. English Sparkling Wine sounds so dull and the latest suggestion is Britagne (pronounced Brittania). Does anyone have any better ideas?

October 2013

It's alright for some! A free case of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is given to Graham Norton, the TV chat show host each week. However before you assume the man must be a raging alcoholic be assured that whilst he enjoys the odd glass the wine goes into a goodie bag which is given to his guests. This arrangement suits Invivo Wines, the owners, who feel that they are reaching a celebrity market but they plan to go one further shortly with the introduction of a Graham Norton Sauvignon Blanc. I could think of some very interesting tasting notes!!!

Terrible storms have hit France which will no doubt push up prices again next year. One of the worst hit areas was Bordeaux, where the Entre deux Mers vineyards have been stripped of their entire crop - but who drinks much white Bordeaux anyway these days? In Alsace hailstorms the size of ping pong balls has done the damage although it is thought that much of the crop can be saved. Elsewhere there are also problems so expect this to be the excuse given for further price hikes next year!

A Chinese woman was bitten by a snake which had been sitting in a bottle of wine pickling for three months. It is a widely held belief in China that such wines contain medicinal powers and she had bought the wine to relieve her rheumatism. Remarkably the snake was still alive and presumably, having been couped up in a bottle and fairly inebriated, decided to attack the consumer who later recovered in hospital. However this is not the first report of such incidents some of which have proved fatal so beware of strange objects in a bottle!!

How refreshing to read that locals and real ale fans in Yorkshire have raised a six figure sum to save their local pub, which has been an alehouse since the 14th Century. This has been achieved by offering shares in the pub with a minimum investment of £100 and a maximum of £20,000. The community have worked hard on this project which it is believed will provide a sustainable foundation to preserve the character and fabric of the pub for future generations. What a great excuse to nip out for a pint. "Just keeping an eye on my investment darling!"

August 2013

It sounds too perfect to be true! A beverage with an alcohol level of 5% has been invented by three students who say its consumption alongside other alcoholic drinks will stop you getting a hangover whilst not affecting the buzz gained. Called ‘Prime’ it is claimed that it has the amino acids and biochemicals your liver needs to naturally break down acetaldehyde and prevent it harming your body. It also apparently has the electrolytes needed to keep you hydrated and a vitamin B complex to prevent headaches."It only breaks down the toxic by products and not the alcohol itself" according to the press release. One Prime needs to be drank with every three glasses consumed suggest the students who are busy raising money to develop their ideas. On the other hand you could drink a little less and have lots of water - this usually seems to work!!

Talk about adding insult to injury. Two London based wine firms have worked together to cheat defrauded customers out of even more money by falsely claiming that they could help recover their losses. Capital Bordeaux Investments targeted the victims of previous scams by encouraging further investment to help them recover their losses but never bought or sold any wine and simply disappeared with the cash. I have warned you before in this column to be extremely cautious when investing in fine wine but if you wish to do so I will steer you in the right direction and recommend the well established and professional firms.

A new popcorn brand has emerged with an alcohol content of 5%. It is based on classic cocktails such as Gin and Tonic, Margarita, Cosmopolitan and Mojito and the alcohol is infused into the popcorn. If you nod off next time you are at the cinema you will know why!! Surprisingly it has won a few awards and can be purchased from Harrods at £2.99 a bag. It doesn't offer much appeal to me.

Here's a lovely story from a sommelier I met recently. An elderly couple came into his restaurant to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary. They were clutching a very old bottle of claret and willingly paid the corkage fee to drink this bottle on their very special occasion. It was from the year they met and when uncorked smelt quite revolting and stank of vinegar. Nevertheless they finished the bottle and left without saying a word. Two hours later they rang the restaurant to complain of food poisoning!!!A new popcorn brand has emerged with an alcohol content of 5%. It is based on classic cocktails such as Gin and Tonic, Margarita, Cosmopolitan and Mojito and the alcohol is infused into the popcorn. If you nod off next time you are at the cinema you will know why!! Surprisingly it has won a few awards and can be purchased from Harrods at £2.99 a bag. It doesn't offer much appeal to me.

Muscadet is coming back into fashion and our own Oxford Shop Manager Lee Isaacs was a guest contributor at a recent symposium on it in London. With many wine drinkers looking for something a little different from staples like Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio, I suggest revisiting this wine style. Made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, well made Muscadet has a delightful dry minerality and not surprisingly, being so close to the coast, goes superbly with seafood. Put aside all those memories of nasty astringent discounted offerings and look around for something more interesting. Whilst Albariño, Grillo, and Grüner are all the rage I can't help feeling we are overlooking something rather closer to home!


A Sussex vineyard run by an all female team has just scooped the 'UK producer of the Year' award for its sparkling Blanc de Blancs. The Bolney Wine Estate is yet another English vineyard to perform at the top level even when compared with Champagne. The vineyard was founded by Janet Pratt in 1972 and has grown from the original 3 acres to almost 40. Janet's daughter, who was a hairdresser before studying viticulture, now heads the all female team. No jokes please about the vines being well groomed! Janet's daughter Charlotte is also heavily involved so this really is a family affair. Winemaker Samantha Linter says "Bolney's south facing vineyards and free draining sandstone soil which retains the heat makes it ideal for grape growing. We are proud of our handmade wines and will strive to build on our success."

We all know about Prince Charles talking to hedgerows but now an Italian producer is playing Mozart to his Sangiovese vines. Sound waves have an effect on plants and low frequencies seem to have the biggest impact with Mozart working better than Led Zeppelin! Even an ardent Mozart fan might tire of the composer's oeuvre but not the vines apparently.

The same is happening in Stellenbosch where a winery plays Bach to the Shiraz and Chenin vines. The owner categorically states that they do not respond well to jazz, rap or rock music. The cost isn't prohibitive - a few loudspeakers and a mile or two of wire - and some would say it is no wackier than biodynamics. This gets me thinking as to how I could improve my tomatoes - some Wagner perhaps whilst the beetroot seem to me to need a session of Motorhead!

VineaLove is a new dating site for wine lovers launched by Françoise Pauly, founder of wine jobs website Vineajobs. It is aimed at wine aficionados and professionals and is available in several languages. Just make sure that your first date is at The Oxford Wine Café in Summertown!

June 2013

I meet a few friends once a month in the Oxford Wine Café and we set a theme and taste a whole load of wines blind. This is the only way to seriously assess wines and judge them without a glance at the label. The event always throws up some surprises but one Mr Pitts is a devil and always brings something weird or obscure. So for the Bordeaux style tasting (in which I am reluctant to admit he out performed us all!) his ‘blind’ wine was a 2008 Merlot from Japan. Called Izutsu from the Nagano Appellation it was hardly a classic but it was the first time I had tasted a wine from this country. As the back label was in Japanese there is little more I can tell you!!!

The 2011 harvest in the Douro Valley in Portugal was exceptionally good and most Port houses have declared it as a vintage. Among these is Quinta de la Rosa, owned by Sophia Bergqvist who lives in East Hendred whilst not running the family business in Portugal. Quinta de la Rosa is a stunning property in one of the world 's most beautiful regions. Rugged and tranquil it can be best reached in a few hours by taking the slow train from Oporto and is a place all wines lovers should aim to visit. Sophia has cottages to rent and would always ensure that you got well looked after at the winery!! Look it up!

The legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association to the introduction of minimum pricing in Scotland has been dismissed. I am pleased at this and have to agree with Alex Neil, the Scottish Health Secretary when he says: "Minimum unit pricing will target cheap alcohol relative to strength that is favoured by hazardous and harmful drinkers and which contributes to much of the alcohol related harm we see in Scotland". In effect the introduction of this 50p a unit will mean that wine cannot be sold for less than £4.69 - almost impossible these days anyway with tax at £2.00 a bottle plus VAT - and that's before you pay for the actual wine, bottle , cap, label and consider taking a profit!!!

I was one of the speakers at the recent Emerging Wine Regions tasting in London. It was fascinating tasting wines from Turkey, Greece, Slovenia, Luxemberg, Macedonia and so on but every time I found something of interest it was, as yet, unavailable in the UK and I was asked to order a pallet (600 bottles). As I pointed out in my talk most UK wine merchants would rather start with 60 bottles and see how they went down - testing the market etc. What better way than to try something unusual at the Wine Cafe in Summertown where discerning wine drinkers would be the first to give an honest opinion! We await an agent brave enough to get in early, influence the wine making style and stock the better wines so they can drip feed the independents.

May 2013

Château Margaux is bringing out a third wine this year to follow its second wine label Pavillon Rouge. These second or third wines from top Château often represent excellent value for money being made in a similar fashion often from younger vines or from less successful plots. However they bear the pedigree of the master Château who will not release rubbish and the prices are considerably more attractive!!

Please do not be tempted with promises of high returns from wine investment companies. There are some reputable companies in the marketplace but many offer poor advice with overinflated promises. Some firms do not explain the risks or detail when making these investments, many of which are unsuitable for certain investors. Rick Ealing, head of investment solutions at Sanlan UK says, "Bottles of wine are not investments. Investments are supposed to earn you money and yet wine pays you no dividends, interest or rent. In fact it has heavy storage costs. People expect investments to grow over time but all wine eventually peaks and decays. You are at risk of counterfeiting, theft and fire. You will in fact enjoy very few protections offered to investors in regulated funds."

April 2013

Did you know that there was a vineyard in the heart of London? (Well maybe not quite the heart!!) The Forty Hall community vineyard in Enfield, north London, is a seven-acre estate run entirely by local volunteers It is the only sizeable vineyard in the greater London area, is completely organic and is situated near to Capel Manor - an organic farm run by a local horticultural college. The vineyard is currently in the process of planting two more acres but project manager Sarah Vaughan-Roberts has made it clear that there will be no further expansion after that. The first vineyard was planted in 2009 but the majority of the vines were killed off by frost. A second vineyard planted in 2011 should now produce its first crop this year although everyone is wary of being too optimistic after the poor summer of last year.

If you had been fishing in Scotland recently you may have noticed a strange smell in the air. It appears that whilst supposedly cleaning the pipes, workers at the whisky plant Chivas Regal flushed away tens of thousands of litres of whisky into the local water treatment plant. Not quite a 'Whisky Galore' situation as the wine was not bottled but nevertheless rather a careless error which I doubt impressed the management. However a chance to acquire some free beer arose soon afterwards when a lorry overturned between Glasgow and Edinburgh and the locals felt their reward for helping clear up the mess was to remove several cases in lieu of payment. It all seems to be falling apart up north but please note that I have resisted Scottish jokes!!

Those of you who follow cricket will know that England fast bowler Steve Finn batted for five hours to help England achieve a draw in the first test against New Zealand. What you won't know is that he was bribed by his captain Alastair Cook to the tune of four cases decent wine if he batted through until tea. The tension mounted as Finn played and missed on numerous occasions but the wine was finally secured. Cook said he was happy to honour the bet and said he would consider similar bribes in the future. He said: "Bribing Steven seemed to work, so maybe we can apply that again. He gets well-rewarded for his efforts today." Finn apparently wants the wine delivered in England rather than overindulge on tour - I await the order!!

Pinot Noir is the Holy Grail for wine lovers. This classic Burgundian grape produces some of the finest wine in the world and as with our wine guru Theo Sloot it is my favourite red. The problem is I cannot afford it!! Cheap Burgundy is dreadful and you have to pay in excess of £40 to get anything reasonable and even then it can be a complete lottery. So where else should you look? New Zealand produces very good Pinot especially from Otago and Martinborough. Oregon and Washington State have some crackers and California can produce good wines too but again they are expensive. So where else? Chile is good value and the wines are improving rapidly and Romania is being touted as another area for the future. But I think German Pinot Noir (known as Spatburgunder) is something you should not dismiss. In a blind tasting recently an example showed really well compared with a Beaune 1er Cru and it was half the price (though still £20!) I am keen to learn more about German Pinot so will do some research. Sometimes I just hate this job!!

March 2013

Champagne sales in the UK are down by 4.4% according to the latest figures. Is this a result of the deep recession or perhaps because there was less deep discounted special offers over the Christmas period? Certainly there is pressure on the supermarkets to take a more responsible attitude to drinks retailing and perhaps they are even under some pressure to make a profit on alcohol! I think the retail customer is getting wise to false discounting from the well known chains. Whilst some are genuine promotions (usually on branded products ) some of the half price deals are just nonsense and suggest a false initial price. Can Pinot Grigio really be reduced from £11.99 to £5.99?

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Simon Baile took over Oddbins some years ago with a view to restoring it to its former glory. We all know what happened - he went belly up in 2011 to the tune of £20 million leaving many of his suppliers being owed large amounts of money. He then started Excellar, a small retail chain mostly based around the M25 but with a shop in the Banbury Road, Oxford - directly opposite Majestic. That shop was closed some time ago and following two more closures Excellar is now in the hands of the liquidators. But guess what? His wife is now the director of the same company which has restarted leaving a second tranche of suppliers high and dry with no chance of getting the money owed to them back. Can you really believe that anyone would want to deal with this guy now and surely there is something wrong when the law allows these people to keep operating when quite clearly it is the same people in charge! It may be legal but it is thoroughly immoral. No wonder the man was "unavailable for comment" when approached by the wine press!!

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A huge thank you to all those who sent messages of support and encouragement when it was announced that The Oxford Wine Company had taken over the old Summertown Wine Café in South Parade. Many people have popped in and offered feedback whilst the refurbishment has been taking place and everything is hopefully on schedule for an opening in early April. It is clear that the old cafe is sorely missed by local residents so we all hope that we produce a formula of which they approve. I am reminded of the Greek philosopher and Poet Solon who said "in great affairs you cannot please all parties". It may not be a great affair and we almost certainly will not please all parties! But we will certainly do our best!

February 2013

I am reproducing this letter with permission of a colleague in the wine trade in response to a complaint that a customer could buy his Champagne cheaper at source!

Dear Augustus,

Firstly I must ask you to meet George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer! We all in this Kingdom are sorely miffed with the high rates of Duty, currently £29.21 per dozen bottles of Champagne and about to increase again.

Next, I refer the honourable member to the answers I gave many times before to others who compare Duty Free buying in France with UK shopping:

1. Shipping and storage has to be added. In your case, you went over there and no doubt like all people you will not have considered that you spent money on travel there and possibly food and accommodation whilst there. Were you to go to his winery each time you needed more Champagne I guess the real cost of the bottle would be 15€ plus say 5€ to take in those overheads, perhaps even more.

2. Yours truly has to make a margin in order to cover all the overheads of shipping and selling the stuff but also to scrape a humble living, rather than grovelling around in sackcloth.

3. By law I am compelled to charge VAT on the entire total of the wine, the shipping, storage, delivery and the excise duty. Of the £22.99 or so I would charge you for a bottle, the following is not mine:

a. VAT = £4 (nearly)

b. Duty = £2.44

c. Shipping and bond charges £0.76

d. The actual price I pay for the Champagne £11

e. Leaving for me £4.79 without taking into account my admin charges, postage, cost of office, equipment and a quill pen etc. In addition it took you 2 months to pay me last time which took another letter/statement and two calls.

I would not want to cast aspersions upon your quality of life and the style that your business allows for you but I would guess that working in banking gives you better return that I receive. Nonetheless, if it helps you I will concede a bit more of my £4.80 and trust that I am unlikely to meet you in the soup kitchen!

Best regards,

Julian

January 2013

Beaujolais Nouveau day passed with barely a whimper and gone are the days of heady excitement when the 'new wine' arrived in the UK. In its heyday Beaujolais Nouveau caused great excitement because most wine drunk was from the Northern Hemisphere and this was the first to arrive of the new vintage. But of course we are now drinking 2012 wines from Chile and New Zealand in the summer of the same year so, quite rightly, little attention is paid to thin acidic Nouveau which really should have had longer in bottle to settle. The new generation of wine drinkers, (who have never heard of the Beaujolais Nouveau races!!) should not however, ignore the wines from the Beaujolais district. Good Beaujolais can be delicious and beautifully clean and fresh but it is no longer cheap and you need to know your way round the region. I recently drank a basic Beaujolais from 100 year old vines which was full of depth and character whilst retaining the classic summer fruit and freshness usually associated with it. All Beaujolais red wine is made from the Gamay grape and is usually drunk within a year or so of production but can age for some time if allowed to. There are 10 villages which can use their own name on the label and these wines command higher prices, the most well known probably being Fleurie. But Morgon is a wine that many would suggest is better a few years down the line when it takes on some of the characteristics usually associated with Pinot Noir. So Beaujolais can actually be very good!!

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You have probably heard of the 'Goats do Roam' wine brand (a clever play on Cotes du Rhone and possibly quite drinkable) but Nyetimber have been the first to introduce sheep to their 100 hectare vineyards in deepest Sussex. The idea is to help with ground management in the winter months and is certainly not advised whilst the grapes are on the vine!! Cherie Spriggs, the winemaker says: "It is one of the great win-win situations for the sheep, for us and for the environment. The farmer gets to rest his pasture and we get a flock of new employees to help keep the grass low. Shorter grass lowers the risk of frosts, means less fuel for mowing and the sheep deposit gives additional fertiliser to the soil"

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Even the boss of Majestic Wines, Steve Lewis, predicts large price increases in the New Year as a result partly of very poor harvests around the world. Global production has fallen 6% to the lowest since 1975 resulting in a real squeeze on bulk availability, but on top of this problem the chancellor will continue to punish us all by increasing duty well above inflation. At the moment more than half the cost of a £5.00 bottle of wine is tax (£2.73), including alcohol duty and VAT - a tax on a tax!! Not good news for all of us wine lovers I'm afraid.

December 2012

Waverley TBS, a very large wine and spirits distributor, has gone into liquidation. They tended to specialise in the bottom end of the market and are just the latest casualty in the wine trade which has seen its fair share of mergers, acquisitions and bankruptcies over the last year or so. Many observers are not surprised as it appears that they were trying to undercut the competition with prices that were clearly unsustainable in order to capture market share. Another sad piece of news is the demise of the Summertown Wine Café in South Parade, Oxford. This was not only a good meeting place but also sold an interesting selection of wine which challenged my blind tasting skills to the limit! There are rumours that it may reopen in some other guise and by the time this is printed there may well be news on that front but in the meantime North Oxford has lost a good venue for civilised drinking.

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The Oxford Wine Company took 16 customers down to Nyetimber Vineyard in Sussex to prove that we do have a thriving wine business in this country. I had been before many years ago but none of us were prepared for the stunning quality of their wine and also their passion and facilities. The vineyard makes only sparkling wine from the classic grape varieties used in Champagne and chooses carefully selected sites over a 50 mile radius in which to plant the vines so not all their land is within the confines of the winery. However the attention to detail is extraordinary and with an American winemaker (Cherie Spriggs) and a New Zealand vineyard manager they are drawing on expertise from around the world. Sadly they have had to make the decision not to pick any grapes from this vintage which literally had the winemaker in tears as she told us this news. The grapes were simply not up to the exacting standards that they have set but we were able to taste a range of excellent wines over lunch and are pleased to now be stocking the Blanc de Blancs vintage as well as the Classic Cuvée, all at prices of everyday Champagne and more than equal to it in quality.

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Wine yields throughout the world are seriously down on previous years and so increases in price at source are inevitable. With the chancellor set to add duty at well above inflation and the Government being indecisive over minimum pricing you can expect a mass of cheap over sweetened Californian wine to hit the supermarkets next year. This seems to be the only area of the world where production is up! Bad luck!!

November 2012

A pilot and his three passengers escaped unhurt when their plane landed in a vineyard in the south of France recently. About 30 vines were damaged in the accident but the owner of the vineyard has seen the funny side and if he has any marketing skills ought to create a 'Cuvée Avion' for this vintage! He also revealed that this was the second time in his life that the local flying club has had to make an emergency landing in his vineyards. It reminds me of the true story of how the famous Montes family from Chile got involved in the wine trade. The current owner's grandfather flew for the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War but crashed his plane in some vineyards in Northern France. He was injured and looked after by the daughter of the vigneron whom he later returned to marry. With prospects grim after the war they left France to seek their fortune in South America - which they made!!

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There is talk of the European Commission allowing the Americans to put the name 'Château' in front of their wines. Naturellement the French are up in arms and I have every sympathy with them. They fear that the proposal would destroy the meaning of the term in regard to unique wines made from a specific site. Laurent Gabenne, vice president of the Bordeaux CIVB says "it is unthinkable that the European Commission, which is supposed to defend our interests, approves of this measure. In the US it's different, they use the term Château to create a brand like Nike or Coca Cola."

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The new state of the art winery that is being created in East Sussex will be both the largest and most environmentally friendly in England. The Rathfinny Estate will start producing still wine in 2014 and sparkling in 2016 with the first 20 hectares of vines having been planted earlier this year (the total estate covers 240 hectares!) The grapes planted are the classic Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay for the sparkling and Riesling for the still. This amazing project, set up by ex hedge fund manager Mark Driver, will employ sustainable design techniques and low carbon technologies throughout the vineyard. If it's as good as some other English sparkling wine then we all have something to look forward to in the future.

October 2012

As one of the largest importers of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's Château Miraval 'Pink Floyd' Rosé we were delighted that The Oxford Wine Company website was quoted with our detailed description of the wine when it was announced that this would be served at their wedding. Known as 'Pink Floyd' after the band recorded their iconic album The Wall at the Château, it is also provided by us to former members of the band who seem to buy it in large quantities and are fond of magnums! The wine, bottled under cork, is made from very old Cinsault and Grenache and is described on our website as "a wonderfully complex rosé with red berry, strawberry and cherry fruit underpinned by crisp minerality and tight structure". I suggest it will become even more popular soon!!

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A burger chain in Los Angeles is now offering Wine Milkshakes - the wine apparently cuts through the sweetness of the shake. There are three flavours with the Pinot Noir, made famous in America by the film Sideways, being the most popular. I am told that the drink has a strong cherry and chocolate tone with classic Pinot Noir flavours coming through on the finish. So when you're next in Santa Monica...

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A new undersea wine cellar is opening next year 150 km off the French Atlantic coast. The cellar will be set 1 km below the surface and it is thought that the conditions will be extremely favourable due to the constant cool temperatures, zero oxygen and zero light. No doubt this is correct but popping down to the cellar for a decent bottle creates a whole new challenge!

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25,000 bottles of red wine were seized by customs in Newport in a crackdown on smuggling recently - this is too rife a problem and is not being dealt with seriously enough by officials. We all have to pay nearly £2.00 a bottle in tax with VAT on top of the whole lot (wine, bottle, cork, label, shipping, profit etc ) Yes - it's a tax on top of a tax and it's a great deal more for spirits!! So if you are offered cheap booze or cigarettes the customs hotline to report suspected smuggling is 0800 595000.

August 2012

Who says crime doesn't pay? Those of you who have been reading my various snippets about wine fraud will be amazed to hear that one simple 5 day scam, which netted £380,000, resulted in a £30,000 fine and a short prison sentence. The culprit has been given time to pay as well - extraordinary really.

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It is not rocket science but thankfully the latest research into drinking alcohol suggests that two glasses a day enhance quality of life!! In fact the maximum one should drink is 4 glasses a day for men and 3 for women and only 14 glasses a week overall. (The glass size was not mentioned - phew!). Looking at factors such as dexterity, emotion, cognition and mobility it was concluded that those who did drink within these boundaries had better overall scores than those who did not drink. The author of this comprehensive study of 5404 Canadians wrote, "Overall this study shows a positive relation between regular moderate alcohol intake and quality of life in middle aged adults." I suspect we now have a few mightily relieved middle aged readers!!!!!

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Christopher Trotter, an award winning food writer, has apparently planted a vineyard in Scotland. Is he mad? He hopes to produce 2500 bottles within a couple of years and he says that the early results are encouraging. I know we have global warming but one act of revenge from Mother Nature could prove very costly. No one has previously attempted to produce wine commercially north of the border so I wish Château Largo, as it will be known, a hefty slice of good luck.

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The runner up in the Apprentice was wine entrepreneur Tom Gearing who at 24 had no official wine qualifications. However, following the filming of the program he completed his Level 1 and 2 Wine and Spirit Education Trust exams and aims to go on to complete Level 3 and possibly even tackle the Diploma, the penultimate qualification in the wine trade. Incidentally at The Oxford Wine Company we have 1 Master of Wine, 2 Master of Wine students and 6 members of staff with the Diploma. All staff are encouraged to take the appropriate exams and as a company we are now able to offer WSET courses to any member of the public interested in wine (see http://www.oxfordwine.co.uk/wineschool.html)

July 2012

Yet another alarming wine fraud has come to light. A 35 year old American faces a lengthy prison sentence after a wine scam that resulted in fraudulent wine sales of $35 million! When the FBI arrested him earlier this year there was explicit evidence of the scam which involved thousands of photocopied wine labels from top vintages, old and new corks, sealing wax and rubber stamps. The fraud seems to have fooled some top experts but with few records showing how many bottles of very old vintages were produced and with even fewer people having ever tasted the wine it was perhaps easy to convince them. There is always inconsistency in older wine and 'experts' may well disagree about flavour. In the rare wine world murkiness has the ability to turn wine into mystique and many celebrities want to drink famous wines and rarely ask questions! However the hoax came to light when the owner of a Burgundy property saw much older vintages of a wine advertised that he only started to produce in the 1980s. This seems a rather elementary error on the part of the fraudster after going to so much trouble in the first place!!

June 2012

The wine buyer at Costco has severely embarrassed herself by stating that she considers wine buying to be no different from buying loo rolls. She is quoted as saying "at the end of the day it's just a beverage, you either like it or you don't." Its worrying that so little care has gone into choosing Costco's wine but as this particular lady was previously buyer for the company's auto parts and had no experience of wine it's hardly surprising. This happens in other large chains too. One minute they are buying steaks from Argentina, then shampoo and the next minute wine. The role seems to have become one of negotiation ahead of knowledge so think carefully before being tempted to shop at the bottom end.

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We recently had a tasting here of the wines from the well known Nyetimber Vineyard in Sussex. I have talked before about the recognition that English sparkling wines are receiving and after this tasting experience I can see why too. The Classic Cuvée selling at £28.99 is stunning to the extent that we have now also ordered it in magnums which always seem to taste better. Having spent rather a lot of time in Champagne recently I can certainly vouch that this English sparkler is of the highest quality and I am not at all surprised that it wins so many awards in blind tastings. We now hear however that a former hedge fund manager is taking a huge gamble and planning the country's newest and largest vineyard capable of producing over one million bottles a year. The wine, to be known as Rathfinny, will be made from vines grown on a 400 acre south facing plot near the coast at Alfriston in Sussex which is actually only about 90 miles from Champagne! The soils are similar and by planting the same classic grape varieties the idea is to capitalise on the huge demand for high quality English sparkling wine. A few years ago I could never have imagined myself saying that!!

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A few months ago I warned you all to be very careful buying en primeur wine on the grounds that there are a number of companies taking your money and then 'doing a runner.' This time the warning is about counterfeit bottles. It may not affect most of us but some clever criminals are obtaining empty expensive wine bottles and refilling them with the same style of aged wine, although nothing like as good, and then reselling them to unsuspecting restaurants. An experienced eye will probably spot this as will someone with a superior palate but in the Far East where this deception is rife restaurants are being encouraged to smash their old bottles so destroying the opportunity of them being reused. There have been fakes for years of course and the fines for being caught are pretty steep but I have no doubt that a fair few slip through the net. The next time that top claret tastes a bit ordinary remember to look at the bottle more closely and ask where it came from!!


May 2012

Any hopes of relief from rising alcohol duty were dashed when George Osborne told us that the 2% above inflation escalator, introduced by the last government, would remain in place. The chancellor was extremely devious and caused some confusion when he used the phrase "no change" in his speech. This was initially interpreted as meaning no change in duty but he meant no change in policy which puts duty up to 2% above inflation. So wine goes up 11p, sparkling by 13p and spirits by 41p. Put this together with price increases at source, increased fuel costs and add VAT (a tax on a tax!) and you will unfortunately see some substantial increased prices at the lower end in particular.

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The managing director of Château Margaux, one of Bordeaux's most distinguished properties, claims that organic farming is the way forward and that within a few years the entire property will be producing wine using alternative farming methods. But more significantly Margaux also recently unveiled its experiments with alternative bottle closures, mostly conducted at this stage on its second wine, Pavillon Rouge. Incredibly (for the French) they say, "We have been disappointed and frustrated by bottles being affected by cork taint. Another closure would be welcome if it is better". A 2003 vintage sealed with screwcap was preferred to the same wine bottled under cork although a tasting of the 2004 was less conclusive. However the very fact that Château Margaux is prepared to look in to improving the quality of their finished wine is surely a step in the right direction.

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It appears that the French have finally acknowledged that the English can make decent sparkling wine. So many blind tastings have revealed that the English examples are at least as good as many Champagnes, if not better, but now we have news that a Champagne house has crossed the channel to produce its own sparkling wine from English grapes. The grape varieties are the same as those used in Champagne, grown on similar soils near Petersfield in Hampshire and the wine is likely to be sold at £24.95 - the price of good everyday Champagne. The sparkling wine (it cannot be called Champagne) is available from The Wine Pantry, a specialist English wine retailer in London's Borough market.

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A study has shown that specialist wine tasters have a more acute sense of taste than the general public. This means that some eccentric descriptions of wines that taste of 'pear drops', 'rubber' or 'cats pee' may not be wrong but simply means that the average man in the street does not have the palate experience of a seasoned expert. This may be fairly obvious but if an expert's ability to taste wine is different from the rest of us, should we be listening to their recommendations? Specific descriptions of wines using words such as 'grapefruit', 'grassy notes' or 'sugar/acid balance' may well be lost and mentioning tartness, sweetness and fruitiness may be considered pointless comments to make. I have always been a bit cynical about wine critic's recommendations anyway. The starting point should always be 'do I like it?' If the answer is positive then sometimes it can be worth digging a little deeper and asking yourself 'why?'

April 2012

Here is a warning. Do not get persuaded by some smooth talking salesman to get involved in fine wine investment. Whilst there are a number of extremely reputable companies who know what they are doing there are an equal number of companies who take your money and never ship over the goods. Buying 'en primeur' as it is often known involves buying the latest vintages whilst they are still maturing in cask. It will be at least two years until you see your wine and then you will often be told that it has arrived in a bonded warehouse but it is suggested that you pay a small annual premium and the wine (now in bottle) will be kept in perfect storage condition until required. All well and true if you are dealing with Berry Brothers or Farr Vintners but these scam companies are quite clever and they use names which suggest pedigree - such as Barclay International or Beaumont Vintners for example. The problem is that they have never shipped over the wine. They will send you reports and bits of paper verifying ownership but when you come to sell or take possession of the wine the bond have never heard of you or them! So under NO circumstances part with your money until you have done your research. This is not our area of expertise so if you want some advice we will help you find the right company with whom to work.

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Croatian wines are set to re-establish themselves in the market place once they have joined the European Union next year. They have 33,000 hectares under vine and plan to substantially increase the 5% they currently export. There is a strong wine culture in the country and the wines show a distinct Mediterranean character based around three indigenous grape varieties. An understanding of the international marketplace will be essential for the Croatians - from what I gather many of their wines undergo serious oak ageing and I just wonder if this is what the public in the UK is looking to buy. No doubt there is considerable expertise on hand to advise this fledgling export market so let's just see how things develop.

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Another juicy wine scandal has come to a conclusion with a Californian judge having approved a class action settlement entitling many wine drinkers to a refund nearly a year after a dozen Frenchmen were convicted of selling fake Pinot Noir to huge companies like Gallo and Constellation who then bottled it under brand names like Red Bicyclette, Redwood Creek and Woodbridge. French customs officials uncovered the scam to sell 18 million bottles of fake Pinot Noir when they realised that the region was exporting more wine than it produced. The lesson here is surely to be aware of branded products.

March 2012

Sadly I was away when the news filtered through that The Oxford Wine Company had won the 'Independent Wine Retailer of the Year 2012' category in the Drinks Retailing Awards. This coveted prize is the one most sought after by the important independent sector of the wine trade and we are delighted to have won this prestigious award. The award was presented to Theo Sloot in the grand dining hall of the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane where the Drinks Retailing Awards were held in front of an array of well known wine trade personalities who had gathered for the annual awards. This award follows on from The Oxford Wine Company's dual win of Best Retailer and Best Wholesaler in the UK by Harpers Wine & Spirit magazine last year and also from being named Regional Wine Merchant of the Year 2010 by the prestigious International Wine Challenge (an award the company first won in 2007).

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Why does no one ever believe me? For years I have been saying that the best way to control one's drinking habits is to take off two days a week rather than be dramatic and restrictive. Now at last it appears to be official! Whilst I admire those who take a month away from alcohol, or indeed those who only drink at weekends, I do feel that this rather destroys the fun and any possible spontaneity involved. Two days a week can be planned in advance - in my case it is usually Monday and then I can look at my diary and adjust accordingly. If something is cropping up I simply adjust my second day of non drinking to fit. This is not to say that I need to spend the rest of the week in alcoholic oblivion but that if I feel like a glass of decent red at the end of the day I can pour it with a clear conscience!

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It's been a while since I've 'done' Champagne, but despite the bitterly cold weather and the monotony of trailing round endless cellars observing stainless steel tanks and wooden barrels there were some very obvious highlights, although of course some of the very old cellars are massively impressive and steeped in history. It's not often that one gets the chance to eat in the private dining room of the late Lily Bollinger whilst tasting a different Champagne with each course and being guided through the vintages by the cellar master. Then we had the Taittinger experience with the help of Vitalie, the daughter of the owner - that was a highlight in itself - and the wines were good too!! A short trek followed to savour the delights of the Laurent Perrier Ultra Brut - a wine with no sugar in the dosage and a slimmers delight. This was followed by a storming range from Gosset and an elegant and fruity selection from the immaculate Pol Roger. We were kept topped up with classic vintages and premium Champagne usually selected with Foie Gras which was very hard to avoid. The beer on the journey home was a welcome relief but this indeed was a trip to remember.

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Another juicy wine scandal has come to a conclusion with a Californian judge having approved a class action settlement entitling many wine drinkers to a refund nearly a year after a dozen Frenchmen were convicted of selling fake Pinot Noir to huge companies like Gallo and Constellation who then bottled it under brand names like Red Bicyclette, Redwood Creek and Woodbridge.

French customs officials uncovered the scam to sell 18 million bottles of fake Pinot Noir when they realised that the region was exporting more wine than it produced. The lesson here is surely to be aware of branded products.

February 2012

Seeing that the Alpha Crucis Shiraz from Australia won the World's Best Label Award reminded me of how difficult label design has become. I was once under the impression that I was rather good at this but after a succession of design disasters my skills have become the butt of jokes at work. The problem is that designers cost a small fortune and so there is always the temptation to 'do it yourself.' What looks good on paper however rarely seems to transfer onto the label. There is a lot to consider such as bottle shapes, capsules and mandatory information and often when all is put together it just doesn't look right. I suppose the answer is that less is more and I note that the Alpha Crucis Shiraz label, referred to earlier, has a very simple, clean and crisp design. I think I could learn from this!!

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A leading Californian winemaker believes that rising taxes mean that there is little future for wine in the UK and that many small US producers will turn away from the UK. John McLaren of Ravenswood Winery says "You punish the beverage of temperance at the same time as you punish the beverage of success." The multiple grocers here will continue to trade in California wine but only when dealing with the largest US wineries in the world, thus almost certainly guaranteeing a rather dull and predictable range. Small boutique producers may well move into China as UK sales slip although there are some who thankfully still see the benefit and importance of the market over here.

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The latest shock is that at a tasting undertaken by many top chefs, sommeliers and wine critics it was decided that white Burgundy (Chardonnay) was the best accompaniment to turkey and not the traditional red Burgundy (Pinot Noir). By the time you read this Christmas will be no more than a distant memory but the conclusions are interesting nevertheless and may trigger a change in your attitude to buying in the future. The panel chose some classics (7 red and only 1 white) such as Châteauneuf du Pape, Branaire Ducru from Bordeaux, New Zealand Pinot Noir, St Émilion, Volnay and Zinfandel and expected these to be the perfect match. However the Volnay proved too overwhelming for the food, the New Zealand Pinot Noir too sweet and the St Émilion was overpowered by the stuffing and gravy. The winner turned out to be the Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru with its fine minerality which apparently bought a refreshing lift to what is always a heavy meal. So now you know - at least offer one white as well as the traditional red!

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I often get asked to guess the wine at dinner parties (a bit harsh as I have usually been on the beer first!) Nevertheless I rise to the challenge with mixed levels of success but being asked to identify the wine in the gravy recently was taking it a touch too far, especially as the answer was Marsala. This is ridiculous but I think the host was serious!! Maybe we should include a gravy tasting section in our Oxford Wine School course which starts in March - details from Lee Isaacs at our Oxford Shop (01865 249500)

January 2012

The Oxford Wine Company is delighted to announce that Marcia Waters Master of Wine is joining us as Wine Buyer. Marcia is well known in the trade and is currently Chairman of the Education and Examination board at the MW Institute. In the past she was Wine Controller at Tesco's, General Manager at Anglo-American (Boschendal and Vergelegen) and buyer for Rothchild Waddesdon. She has recently been running her own consultancy company based near Thame, as well as lecturing, selling and training.

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So the Oddbins name has been relaunched with 37 odd shops, including two in Oxford, that were rescued after the dramatic collapse of the once iconic company. It seems that there is a definite change in policy and that there will be a range of 375 wines, many at the cheaper end. Apparently the idea is to attract a new range of customers and not the "loyal bunch of customers" once associated with Oddbins. The old original Oddbins (before it was sold to Nicolas and went downhill rapidly!) had a wonderful and interesting esoteric selection but it sounds to me as if the decision is to take on the supermarkets - a dangerous game.

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I was enjoying a glass of Viognier recently in the excellent company of the guys from Christopher Piper Wines in a local hostelry in Ottery St Mary in darkest Devon. I had met Chris 3 months earlier at the Harpers Top Merchant Awards and as I often take holidays in Devon it seemed appropriate to meet up and exchange views. We are both family companies with similar turnover and staffing levels so much useful information was shared. However the peace was shattered when Chris started laughing whilst consuming a steak sandwich. A piece of steak became firmly stuck in his throat. He was coughing and spluttering, turning red, then blue - the seriousness of the situation was becoming apparent!! I got myself in position with my hands around Chris's substantial girth and attempted the Heimlich Manoeuvre. As I started to squeeze and jerk Chris was drinking vast quantities of the Viognier as no water was on the table. This seemed to do the trick and out popped the offending article. The affable Chris, watery eyed and hugely relieved, celebrated life with another glass of wine. Now that's what I call style!!

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The island of Sark in the Channel Islands is now home to a vineyard, as is the tiny island of Brecqhou west of Sark. The Barclay brothers, owners of the Daily Telegraph, have planted 11 hectares of vines, among them Chardonnay, Gamay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. The sites have been carefully chosen and the first vintage should be available next year. The influence will be strongly French and the plan is to make some sparkling and still wine, although the greatest challenge is likely to be the wind. So among other precautions they are planting 5000 trees and shrubs to promote biodiversity and to protect the vines. There's nothing like a challenge!!

December 2011

Bad news! Red wine's reputation for preventing heart attacks has now been disputed by health experts who have declared that alcohol can do you damage. The alcohol policy commission has challenged the 'myth' that light drinkers are at less at risk than non drinkers. Oh well - just when I was getting into it!! The conclusion is obvious - choose carefully the articles you wish to read on the subject and act accordingly. I for one am less grumpy after a glass or two and certainly enjoy my food more - that surely is a social benefit that cannot be overlooked!!

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Shock Horror! The Bordelais have not declared the 2011 vintage to be the 'Vintage of the Century.' Apparently 2011 brings us back to reality after two superb vintages. This is a relief because, quite frankly, I do not think that the market could cope with another great vintage. So you can expect en primeur prices to come down by about 20%, but if you are going to invest choose your wines carefully. You need to ask yourself why you are investing. Is it as part of a balanced investment portfolio with a likely sale when the time is right or is it to drink in the future for your own enjoyment? If it is the latter there may be no need to dig that deep - there are still some good value smaller Châteaux on the market so work out your strategy and take the appropriate advice

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The public tend to associate American wines with California but of course other states do produce some excellent wines as well, not least Oregon and Washington state where some of the Pinot Noir is on par with the great wines of Burgundy. But what surprised an audience of 60 people in the Oxford shop last month was the quality of wines from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I was over there last year and whilst some of the wine making is still a little crude and designed for the home market, there is enough evidence to suggest that this could become a great wine producing state. In particular the Viognier grape does well producing wines with fruit, balance and acidity whilst Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot are responsible for some stunning deep rich reds. Even with the prices set high we sold a 4 figure amount on the night - testament to the quality of the wines and a tribute to our discerning customer base!

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I have always supported the idea of minimum pricing for alcohol. This is based on the fact that when my son and his friends were at University they would pick up trays of ridiculously cheap beer in a supermarket, go back to their house, get roaringly drunk and then hit a nightclub where they rarely paid an entrance fee and had no need, nor could afford, to buy further drinks. Nothing was put back into the local community and the supermarket concerned, selling well below cost price, was encouraging loutish behaviour with all the implications that go with it.

Whilst in England there has been no move to set minimum pricing, the opposite is true north of the border but last year the SNP failed in its attempts to introduce a 45p per unit price which would mean that a 14% bottle of wine could sell at no less that £4.72. Medics however are calling for this to be as high as 60p a unit which would make the price £6.30. Will a decision ever be made and legislation passed? Incredibly (for politicians) this might just actually be getting a little closer!

October 2011

I know I keep banging on about it but corked wines seem to be having a good run at the moment. We have just conducted a blind tasting of 3 white and 10 red Burgundies with the sole purpose of building on and improving our range. Three of the wines were badly affected by cork taint making the wine taste damp and mouldy and completely destroying the aromatics. Please also bear in mind that these wines were all £20- £30 per bottle! It was interesting to hear Tom Carson the Australian winemaker from Yabby Lake in the Mornington Peninsular on the subject. At a recent tasting in our Oxford shop he was asked by a member of the audience why his wines were in screwcap and not cork. He answered simply by turning the question round, "give me one good reason why they shouldn't be?" There were some stumbling replies before Tom launched into the fact that he wanted his wine to truly represent quality and vintage and the only way to ensure this was by using screwcap (or stelvin as the closure is officially called). He stated very emphatically that all his wines were ageing beautifully under screwcap and he would never ever consider cork as a practical closure. So there!!

I was enjoying a glass of Viognier recently in the excellent company of the guys from Christopher Piper Wines in a local hostelry in Ottery St Mary in darkest Devon. I had met Chris 3 months earlier at the Harpers Top Merchant Awards and as I often take holidays in Devon it seemed appropriate to meet up and exchange views. We are both family companies with similar turnover and staffing levels so much useful information was shared. However the peace was shattered when Chris started laughing whilst consuming a steak sandwich. A piece of steak became firmly stuck in his throat. He was coughing and spluttering, turning red, then blue - the seriousness of the situation was becoming apparent!! I got myself in position, with my hands around Chris's substantial girth and attempted the Heimlich Manoeuvre. As I started to squeeze and jerk Chris was drinking vast quantities of the Viognier as no water was on the table. This seemed to do the trick and out popped the offending article. The affable Chris, watery eyed and hugely relieved, celebrated life with another glass of wine. Now that's what I call style!!

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I see that Kate Moss has bought a vineyard in the south of France for her husband Jamie Hince. She joins a long list of celebrities who have done the same thing only to produce hugely expensive, average quality wines selling only on their name. One account says "Kate is planning on naming the wine after herself and has even suggested using the Merlot grape to produce the inaugural Vin de Mosset". I don't suppose for one minute that she will get her hands dirty but if she does she can use her own soap as she creates bars using her own flowers from the garden.

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A new Wine School has been set up in Oxford. Run by The Oxford Wine Company from their Botley Road shop, the initial course is designed for beginners who would like to get a basic grounding in wine in a relaxed and informal atmosphere. Lee Isaacs will run the course, together with some guest speakers. The Oxford Wine School will evolve but current details can be found at www.oxfordwine.co.uk/wineschool.html

September 2011

English vineyards are producing more and more quality award winning sparkling wines that can rival Champagne from France. A sparkling wine made in Sussex has been judged the best in the world and was deemed appropriate to serve to President Obama on his recent visit. Even the French are investing over here - a sure sign that we are doing something right! Mr Balfour-Lyons, who owns a vineyard as well as the Malmaison and Hotel du Vin groups says "the English climate is ideal for producing the right level of acidity and mouthwatering freshness which is vital for good quality Champagne and sparkling wine."

But the question remains: what do we call it? Italy has Prosecco, Spain has Cava and France has Champagne. We need a catchy name. English sparkling wine sounds so dull but a Hampshire producer called Christian Seely has come up with 'Britagne.' However Mike Roberts of the Ridgeview winery thinks the fizz should be called 'Merret' in honour of the Englishman who reputedly invented the method of capturing bubbles in the glass. Others have suggested 'Pippa' in honour of Pippa Middleton who seemed to capture something quintessentially English at 'The Wedding'. Any other suggestions?

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The Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is the most famous of all the great Burgundy vineyards. Situated just south of Dijon, the vineyard boundaries have remained untouched for 600 years. There are six 'grand cru' vineyards (known as 'climats') and the original boundaries were probably mapped out by Cistercian Monks from the 4th century onwards. By trial and error (and a great deal of drinking!) the monks discovered that different plots of vines delivered markedly different tastes and qualities from the classic Pinot Noir grape. The La Tache vineyard, the most famous of the lot, can sell for upwards of £12,000 a bottle and yet its neighbour in the same appellation of Vosne Romanée might only achieve £30. The greatest wine experience of my life was drinking a bottle of the 1953 La Tache over lunch with Auberon Waugh - there was so much sediment that I filtered the remaining 1/4 of the wine though a tissue and gave a sip to my wine class that evening. To this day I am reminded of the experience.

Anyway the point of this story is that there is a campaign to make the Romanée Conti Vineyards a Unesco world heritage site. In an age of uniformity and brands they argue that authenticity and quality is everything. However this will only irritate other top producers from famous regions such as Bordeaux and Champagne and I can see the stuffy world of top French wine producers brewing for another major battle.

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You will have read (hopefully in this column last month!) about the excessive prices paid by the Chinese for famous red wines. Now however, we have news concerning the most expensive white wine produced. A 200 year old bottle of the 1811 vintage of Château d'Yquem, the most famous dessert wine from Bordeaux, was sold for £75,000 to a hotel owner in Bali. Whilst this might be out of your reach I can provide a bottle of the 1995 in any of our shops for a mere £399 a bottle. An investment for your great great grandchildren perhaps!?

August 2011

There is no doubt that China is distorting the Fine Wine market. At a recent Christies auction in Hong Kong at least one bottle of wine went for more than a Harvard education - £45,000 to be precise. This was for Château Latour which normally fetches less than Château Lafite-Rochchild. It's a crazy world and the demand for fine wine, rather like art, seems resistant to the global economic crisis. Some of the wine will be drunk, some hoarded and some traded but ultimately the market will surely have to settle or will the growing number of Chinese millionaires who acquire a taste for fine wine maintain the momentum?

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Many Bordeaux producers and most of the critics hailed 2009 as the "vintage of the century" after almost perfect wine growing conditions and yet 2010 is also being hailed as the same with prices likely to match those of 2009. One critic cynically remarked that this was the eighth "vintage of the century" but there is no doubt that the quality is very good indeed. These wines are sold early whilst still in barrel, the process being known as buying "en primeur". After two years they are bottled and investors hope to make a quick turn or indeed keep the wine for long term drinking or further investment. Britain and the US have been the traditional futures market with top wine critic and writer Robert Parker having a massive influence over the whole process. However recently Bordeaux has been concentrating heavily on the Asian market and Parker warns that it is "a very dangerous game to raise prices as the global economy is very, very fragile". Not everyone agrees with him with Simon Davies of Fine and Rare Wines saying "Whenever a big new player comes into the market, the last big player moans they cannot afford it. Whilst the world's most important wine critic is still American, I'm afraid that a new wine superpower is on the rise - and that's China !!"

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Back in blighty I can report on good press for the local Hendred Vineyard. In the English and Welsh Wine of the Year Competition they were awarded Silver medals for their Callaghan's Furlong 2010 and Hendred Brut NV and also a Bronze medal for their Rockpit Rosé. The Fulong and Rockpit Rosé are both stocked by The Oxford Wine Company - they are lovely clean and fresh fruit driven wines with good acidity. Steve and Vivienne Callaghan have done a great job in revitalising this small vineyard and I suspect there is more to come from this enterprising and energetic couple.

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We hope to soon be stocking some Greek wine. We often get asked for it but over the years I have yet to find something I enjoy and I am afraid I am not going to stock anything simply for the sake of it. However at the London Wine Trade fair this May I can actually report that I tasted some interesting Greek wines including a half pleasant Retsina. We have to retaste and confirm the price and quality but we should have something on the shelves by the end of the summer.

July 2011

The cork v screw cap debate continues with The Sommelier Society of America issuing a joint statement with '100% Cork,' an educational campaign endorsing the use of natural cork. "Natural cork plays a distinctive role in the preservation and presentation of wine" says its chairman, "it is an integral part of the romance of wine and remains the gold standard for wine closures." He continues along the lines that cork is a reliable seal that allows just the right amount of oxygen to mix with the wine so that it ages properly. He then bangs on about sustainability and the endangering of cork forests in a weak argument designed to make us all feel guilty.

Why then has a Portuguese wine maker made a brave and controversial move to put his Vinho Verde under screw cap in a country that produces 80% of the world's cork? This move away from natural cork is in response to 'cork taint,' a mouldy taste and smell blamed on natural cork. Why also does most wine at the everyday end of the scale now come in screw cap? To me it is the perfect and most convenient seal for a wine designed to be drunk young - I find that I deliberately select screw capped bottles from the fridge to save me having to dig out the corkscrew! I have just enjoyed a vertical tasting of the famous Australian Pinot Noir 'Ten Minutes by Tractor' and the winemaker there has insisted that since 2000 all his wines go under screw cap because of the numerous problems he has had with cork.

The point is that the jury is still out on this debate. Despite what you are told there are many top Châteaux that are putting a small proportion of their wines into screw cap to see what happens to it over a period of time. Good cork is a good closure but as a retailer and wholesaler I do not want to risk returned bottles from unhappy customers. Seven years ago we would replace 25 bottles a month as 'corked' (although in some cases it was just a customer not liking it or showing off!!) whereas nowadays I replace just one damaged seal a month. I rest my case.

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The London Wine Trade Fair is a massive bun fight down at Excel in Docklands but it is an important date in the diary that we daren't miss and I, along with many colleagues, were there for up to three days in May. This might sound like your idea of bliss but it is exhausting stuff as those who have attended similar events will testify. We seem to spend the whole time being hounded by winemakers desperate for us to sample their wares and by one o'clock my palate is usually shot to bits. This year I tried hard to develop a structure to my day only for my best efforts to come unstuck at the Australian stand. Here three beauties from down under (Perth) kept me against my will and forced me to taste their entire range followed by a refreshing bottle of beer. It's strange but I cannot for the life of me work out why that stand seemed to be so busy!

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I was surprised to read that the government has released some details of its secret wine cellar held in Lancaster House and of course, funded by the taxpayer! The value is estimated at two million pounds. It includes some 1961 Château Latour originally bought for 51 shillings and now worth between £5,000 - £10,000 a bottle. What however is amusing is the Government's assessment of the wine versus Malcolm Gluck's view. (Gluck is a well known and slightly controversial wine writer). For example if we take the 1955 Château Latour the Government's notes say 'Drink on special occasions - spectacular, the essence of wonderful claret' whereas Gluck's comment is 'An arthritic liquid at least 40 years past its best.' Or indeed the 1964 Krug Champagne which is apparently 'For special occasions only - drink slowly' whereas Gluck suggests that you would certainly need to drink it slowly as you might think you were drinking cobwebby medicine!! Perhaps the answer is to serve this stuff to the less sophisticated dignitaries who arrive on our doorstep!!

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June 2011

Am I alone in being thoroughly confused with the various press reports on alcohol and health - especially those in relation to cancer and heart disease? I have looked at many articles and think I need to analyze what disease I am most likely to suffer before making any decisions. For example, if I stop drinking I am less likely to get cancer but as this does not run in the family and heart attacks do, I would be better having a large glass of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon every day which apparently will help prevent heart disease (thank the Lord!). Of course I also have to eat bunches of fresh fruit, take masses of exercise and go to bed early as well and with luck I should live to one hundred (which would not go down very well with the family!). Or should I sit sedately, not get stressed, not drink but still possibly expose myself to a heart attack and not get cancer? The reports are certainly confusing but any excessive lifestyle is likely to come back to haunt you at some point. The message seems simple to me - be aware of the issues and do as you please. Some are lucky - some are not! There is an old boy down the road who smokes heavily, drinks copious quantities of Guinness and probably eats badly but I bought him a drink last week - to celebrate his 92nd birthday!!

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So the Oddbins estate has been broken up after the chain went into administration recently. Someone has bought 37 of their shops - mostly in London and Scotland but also including two of the Oxford ones. The Summertown shop has closed however along with 57 others around the country. A further 50 or so are for sale individually and some may well be purchased by the employees and renamed as small independents. This is what happened when the Thresher/Winerack chain went under. The Oddbins name has also been purchased separately but as yet we do not know by whom - it may be by the purchaser of the top 37 shops! Whatever the case it's yet again all change on the high street.

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Is it a gimmick that the Queen is planting 16,700 vines in Windsor Great Park or do her advisors genuinely feel that the soil there is perfect for wine? Whatever the case within three years she will be able to serve an English sparkling wine for her guests. The success story for English wine is undoubtedly in the sparkling area where excellent examples are produced in Sussex and Kent, the most famous being Nyetimber, Chapel Down and Ridge View, though another great example comes from Camel Valley in Cornwall. These wines are serious and often win awards when pitched against Champagne in blind tastings but I have also recently tasted some very poor examples too so it will need a little more than just planting the famous Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay to make something acceptable. I just get the feeling that no expense will be spared to get it right and I have no doubt this decision will be a massive boost for the English wine industry. The big question is - will the wine be ready for Prince Harry's wedding?

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We all had a marvellous evening whilst narrowly beating The Cambridge Wine Merchants in the first of the annual Oxford v Cambridge blind tasting challenges overseen by Dr Hanneke Wilson, the Oxford University's blind tasting team coach. The teams were made up of 5 employees from each company and the individual scores were added up to reach a result. We were given 7 minutes per wine and had to identify the grape variety, country, region, sub region and vintage as well as commenting on the acidity, alcohol, nose and palate etc. The whites in particular were extremely difficult and Hanneke came out with the immortal comment "you did very well getting the grape varieties - unfortunately you did not necessarily get them in the right order!!" Nevertheless a challenging and enjoyable evening with John Chapman emerging as the champion taster of the evening.


May 2011

By all accounts Lesley from Longworth was distraught at not getting a mention last month. Rumour has it that she gave up her quarter bottle a week for lent and will return a much fitter and healthier woman. So goodbye to those awful hangovers Lesley - you can now join the Longworth runners on a Saturday morning with not only a clear head but also a clear conscience. I am going to put you in touch with the anti smoking lobby - or do you secretly have one a week and two puffs a day?!!

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It was sad to see Oddbins, the last of the great high street wine merchant chains, having to request a CVA paying creditors 21p in the pound in order to survive - this at the same time as closing 39 branches. However the CVA was not accepted, mainly due to pressure from the Inland Revenue and so Oddbins has gone into administration. What will happen to this once great high street name is anyone's guess but surely the name will be bought and perhaps will survive as a small group trading only from its more successful shops. The Wine Rack name was purchased after the demise of Threshers and now trades mostly within the M25. I hear that the administrators of Oddbins have been in discussions with several interested parties to provide the necessary funding required to recapitalise the business. In the good old days Oddbins had highly trained, intelligent, eccentric staff who would as happily chat about the films of Woody Allen as they would the right bank of Bordeaux. Whenever a job came up I would look to ex Oddbins staff knowing that they would be of the highest calibre. However since Oddbins was purchased by French chain Nicolas, broken up and then rescued again by Simon Baille, some of the staff became no more than till operatives left with little stock and no communication from Head Office. What a sad ending to an iconic Wine Merchant - or is it?

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The dust has now settled on all the price rises and we move forward into another year in the hope that various exchange rates will stabilize and we can keep our prices constant for a spell. We managed to do this last year by absorbing most of the price rises ourselves but unfortunately we can't do this forever and must pass some of them on. So the consumer will now be paying for increases in costs at source, escalating petrol prices, a hike in dry goods costs, a 15p jump in duty and 20% VAT on top of the lot! So please don't complain when the price of your favourite tipple goes up - we end up bearing the brunt of a lot of this too.

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I am about to export a container of wine to China and my customer has also requested prices on first growth claret. He was not daunted when I told him that each bottle would cost a four figure number but much more concerned that we could provide provenance as apparently there is a huge business in fraud at this top end of the market in China. Many wealthy individuals want the label but as they often mix the contents with coca cola they are unlikely to be able to tell what wine they are drinking - hence it is easy to con them with fake bottles. I will of course only provide the real thing and what they do with it is up to them - however my concern is that the market is getting badly distorted and that us humble wine merchants will no longer be able to afford to stock even a few bottles!!

April 2011

Awards are always important if you win them but not if you don't! A troop from The Oxford Wine Company went down to London recently for a large wine tasting at the Vinopolis wine centre which was followed by the Harpers Wine & Spirit Magazine Top Merchants wine awards. We knew that we had been short listed in 3 of the 7 categories and were up against such illustrious names as Harrods Wine Department and Tanners. We were hoping to win something but were stunned when we won not only the Best Retailer in the UK Award for 3 shops or less but also the Best Wholesaler in the UK award as well. I tried to thrust my colleagues up to the stage to receive the award but to no avail though this is very much a team effort built over many years. Many new wines and spirits have been added this year so please call in to the new Oxford shop in the Botley Road and have a browse - we hope you will be impressed. Somebody has been!!

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Heather Miller, one of our sales staff, is currently studying for her MW (Master of Wine) exam. This is well recognised as one of the hardest exams around. Many hundreds apply for the course, which may take years to complete and even to be accepted on this course is an achievement in its own right. From here a few hundred sit the exams every year and possibly as few as 2 or 3 pass. There are about 288 MWs in the world which says it all. Heather is currently in Burgundy and we have asked her to look out for good small producers. She reports back on a regular basis although quite how she is still standing is anyone's guess - she appears to have tasted from every single producer! Buying good Burgundy is quite an art in itself as it can vary hugely from vintage to vintage as well as a result of time spent in bottle. We prefer to work with growers and vignerons who are consistent in their wine making from year to year and get the best out of each vintage. Let's see what she comes up with - we all know it's a horrible job but someone's got to do it!

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I have issued a challenge to the Cambridge Wine Merchants to take on The Oxford Wine Company in a blind tasting competition. This will be run along the same lines as the Varsity match and we will have to identify 12 wines blind using our skills and experience to name the grape variety, country, region and vintage as well as writing comprehensive notes on each wine. We get 7 minutes a wine and the whole process is massively intimidating and not at all easy. We had the Oxford University coach Hanneke Wilson here recently and she gave us some useful tips following our loss to the well practised university side in a practice run. It's all good fun and the event will be covered by the national wine press and the Oxford Times. Try it at home sometime and you will soon discover that one glance at the label is worth 30 years of experience with wine!!

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By all accounts Lesley from Longworth was distraught at not getting a mention last month. Rumour has it that she has given up her quarter bottle a week for lent and will return a much fitter and healthier woman. So goodbye to those awful hangovers Lesley - you can now join the Longworth runners on a Saturday morning with not only a clear head but also a clear conscience. I am going to put you in touch with the anti smoking lobby - or do you secretly have one a week and two puffs a day?!!

March 2011

It is very refreshing to see interesting wines served on Virgin Airlines including an Austrian red and a Sicilian Grillo. The latter made quite an impact and is not a grape with which I am over familiar. It is a full bodied white grape which is often blended with Catarratto and Inzolia in sweet and dry Marsala wines. Certainly on its own it was refreshingly different and clearly a good food wine.

There is no doubt that wine drinkers are increasingly looking for something a little different and a move away from the standard Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio must surely be a good thing. The choice is getting wider and a decent wine merchant will guide you on a voyage of discovery.

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Working on a new wine list is a time consuming affair. Coordinating cost price increases, duty rises and then topping it with a new VAT rate is a nightmare when most of our customers expect a new list on April 1st. This is not made easier by one or two suppliers announcing that they are withholding price increases until the summer. Ironically this is of no use to us at all. The pubs, clubs, hotels and restaurants that we supply want a post budget price which is stable until Christmas. So whilst we never absolutely guarantee price stability there is a certain amount of guesswork involved when putting this all together. New wines can be slotted in during the year but regularly mucking about with prices does not endear us to customers.

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Andrew Lloyd Webber is a happy man having just seen a selection of his private wine collection sell for over £3.5 million. But what I find quite extraordinary is that the auction prices were 60% up on market valuation. What possible logic is there here - is there really prestige associated with drinking a bottle of wine once owned by a famous composer!! For the record the case of 2000 Château Mouton-Rothchild went for £17,565 (62% above market value). So to you a snip at £1465 a bottle or just under £500 per 250ml glass! What is the world coming to? This is utter lunacy.

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Champagne sales are now back to the 2007 level after a dip in 2008/9. With over £4 billion sales the area is expanding to fulfil demand but the very fact that the region is creating more designated planting acreage suggests that there is likely to be a drop in quality. Is Champagne now a two tier market with the major brands at over £30 a bottle and the supermarkets promoting own brands at well below £20? Are the major brands just profiteering? Recent blind tasting results might suggest that picking up two bottles of own label Champagne is better value that one Grande Marque.


February 2011

The Chancellor's recent VAT rise demonstrates a consistency not often seen in politics but the results will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the wine trade and its customers. However The Oxford Wine Company will not be introducing any retail price rises until April when, due to supplier increases and an expected further duty hike in the budget, it will be necessary for us to increase prices.

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Ever since I have been in the wine trade I have heard that Sherry is making a comeback. But this time I really believe it's true and not just media hype. I recently served a lovely Gitana Manzanilla which is a drier style of Sherry and the perfect aperitif to get those taste buds going. It has lovely clean dry minerality with a hint of nut and spice and is just perfect when the guests arrive. Forget all the jokes about Granny - this is a delicious trendy young drink.

January 2011

I have only recently returned from a trade customer trip to Northern Spain covering Rioja and then heading east to Ribera del Duero and Rueda. None of our guests had been there before and they were all bowled over by the stunning scenery and the vibrant late Autumnal colours throughout the vast expanse of vineyards. Helped by the high temperatures and the relentless sunshine, not to mention the company, this was a trip to remember. We started with a visit to old friend Antonio Navajas, the Rioja producer with whom we have been working for 15 years. His new winery was hugely impressive, especially to our first timers, but the subsequent visit to Bai Gorri blew them away. The whole winery is set into the hillside on six levels each one being the size of a football pitch. With clever use of glass and stainless steel this was a James Bond set in the making. We half expected Jaws to emerge or to come across Blofeld stroking his cat. All the wine making processes are carried out using gravity to transfer the juice and the different levels of the winery represent the various stages of winemaking with the ground floor storing the barrels ready for bottling. Here too was the restaurant and after a superbly organised tasting of the wines we settled down for an 8 course 4 hour lunch with a great view of the stunning vineyards. I have never seen such an impressive modern winery and having been so warmly welcomed this made a huge impact on us all.

I cannot say that the subsequent visit to world famous producer Vega Sicilia made us feel the same. This is by far the most expensive wine in Spain and ranks as one of the best wines in the world. A visit is very rare and our host, a Spanish wine expert, had been unable to get in for 10 years!! The winery itself is impressive but the arrogant and cold manner in which we were received left us in no real mood to enjoy the wines even though they were good despite being hugely overpriced.

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Writing this in November I still live in hope that the chancellor will give us all a last minute reprieve on VAT but based on the fact that the last recorded miracle was some time ago I can only assume we are all going to have to react to the increase. However you will pleased to hear that we do NOT intend to put any retail prices up until April, by which time we will have received supplier increases and a further duty hike in the budget. So be prepared - we can be generous in the short term but it will not last long! I would rather one price rise than three and also it makes administration a lot easier. It just means a 2.5% loss for a few months for us!!!

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The saga of Leslie from Longworth continues (she was the lady who buys a 1/4 bottle on a Monday and makes it last all week!!). I presented her with a challenge. At a recent village event she was more than generous when pouring wine for others whilst quietly sipping from her own thimble, but on the evening I gave her a 1/4 bottle of Champagne which I knew would create a problem. She either had to behave outrageously and drink it all at once or she had to find a way to preserve the bubbles for a week. Perhaps she asked four friends around for a wild night(!) or did she try the silver spoon technique? (An old wives' tale whereby you place a spoon upside down in the neck of the bottle which apparently makes the bubbles last longer). This may be the last you hear about Leslie - she books into a clinic next week!!

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Wine Trivia

A raisin dropped into a glass of Champagne will repeatedly bounce up and down between the top and bottom of the glass.

Methyphobia is fear of alcohol

December 2010

I am not noted for my subtlety so I had to be very restrained when I went to a recent dinner party and drank some very dubious Vacqueyras, the famous Rhône wine. The host informed me that he had bought this wine in an auction and that it was "a brilliant bargain". Most respected auction houses who specialise in wine do inform any prospective buyers of the provenance of the wine and in some cases there is an opportunity to taste. What persuaded him to buy five cases of this wine is quite beyond me. He either has an appalling palate or was duped. But here lies a warning - wine should only be bought directly from a respected wholesaler or retailer when it is known how it has been stored or handled. I often get offered cases of vintage Port, given by a generous Godfather, but never drunk and being unloaded to raise money. I could undoubtedly pick up a financial bargain on paper but the wine in many cases has been stored in far from ideal conditions at temperatures way too high to ensure the natural ageing of the wine. Not knowing the wines provenance is far too dangerous a game to play and I will now always buy from respected merchants where I have some comeback if the complaints roll in!

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I have just spent a week in North Carolina and Virginia along with Theo Sloot, our marketing and PR manager. We were guests of SUSTA, the trade association and, as a leading importer of Virginian wine, we were asked to visit three wineries a day, sit in on a few meetings and give our opinion on the quality and marketability of the wine as well as advising on how to penetrate the English market. North Carolina was generally disappointing and much of the wine is made from Muscadine which does not belong to the Vitis Vinifera grape type that is used to produce the vast majority of the world's wines. The taste may appeal to locals but it is not one for the UK!! However Virginia was fascinating. The majority of the wineries are found in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and in many cases the scenery is quite stunning. Some wineries wish to remain very local with about 80% of their wine being sold at "Cellar Door", which gives them maximum margin and positive cash flow. However one or two others were keen to support the idea of breaking into the world market and this starts with the UK, still considered to be the centre of the wine world. I believe that Virginia has a great future particularly as the grape varieties that seem to work best are not mainstream. The Viognier grape does especially well and Oz Clarke believes some of the examples to be among the best in the world. The wines are exceptionally pure with great fruit and balancing acidity. Also performing well is the Cabernet Franc, the lesser known Cabernet which is used in Bordeaux blends but comes into its own in the Loire Valley making such famous wines as Chinon and Bourgueil. In Virginia it seems to possess a purity of fruit and depth not found elsewhere which allows it to stand alone as a fine wine. Petit Verdot, another Bordeaux grape variety used in blends also performs well here in varietal form. We also found a stunning Nebbiolo (the grape of Barolo) although very few producers are yet experimenting with Italian varieties. Whilst inevitably there is a certain amount of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay grown it is the very fact that these other grapes are more successful which should secure Virginia a place as a recognised and interesting wine producing area. The down side is the wines do not start cheap ranging from £15 to £25 but they do taste good so let's just see if we can persuade some of you "stick in the muds" to do a blind tasting on your friends - you might just surprise a few people. A total of eight Virginia wines will eventually be stocked in our Witney, Oxford and Tetbury shops.

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Spare a thought for my wife who opened a bottle of rare Californian wine to put in the stew! When I informed her it was one of only two bottles left in the UK she went very pale. We are talking again now!!

November 2010

You need to know about Lesley from Longworth. A lovely girl who doesn't do much for my profits as she buys a 1/4 bottle of wine on a Monday and makes it last a week but my discussions with her prompted a healthy debate as to whether small bottles are still popular as retail or restaurant wines. Apparently we are drinking less as a nation although The Oxford Wine Company does not seem affected by this ! However half bottles are less popular than they used to be with the restaurant trade as they tend to sell wine in large glasses (Honest Officer I only had one glass!) or give the customers a bottle and charge them for what they drink. In fact we eventually concluded that 50cl was probably the perfect size for loads of reasons which you can probably work out for yourself and we are surprised that there are not more on the market. We have the stunning Pink Floyd rose from Provence in this size but not much else so I wonder how long beforewww.50cl.com gets registered - perhaps it has been already. In the meantime Lesley no delivery is too small for us and we give out free thimbles with every 1/4 purchased!!

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The International Wine Awards are regarded as the most prestigious in the Industry and Theo and I fought our way down to the Hilton in Park Lane for the massive dinner and ceremony.. Our efforts were well rewarded as we won "The regional Wine Merchant of the Year" fighting off 220 entrants to win one of the prestigious awards on offer. I hope it is comforting to know that your local wine merchant is highly regarded within the industry. It was a long evening and Theo wasn't drinking, citing health reasons, but he's been unhealthy since I have met him so I cannot see the problem!

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Reading the papers today highlighted what I have always said about the popularity of restaurant wines. The reasons that so much Chablis, Sancerre,and Châteauneuf du Pape is sold is not because the wine is necessarily of outstanding quality but because the public feel comfortable pronouncing the name. The paper highlighted the common mis pronunciations and how so many customers wish to avoid embarrassment or impress their guests by playing safe and trading up rather than asking for advice or trouble shooting the list. My tip is to drink the better house wine in a decent restaurant or if in doubt play safe with Chilean wine which usually delivers at the lower price point. The problem in this country is that House Wine is often perceived to be (and often is !) the cheapest and poorest quality available. I wish more restaurants and gastro pubs would at least pay that bit extra and get something interesting as a House wine - which should represent the chosen quality of the proprietor. It does not have to be the cheapest on the list.

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Wine Trivia

The first known reference to a specific wine vintage was by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder who, almost 200 years later, commented that the 121BC Vintage was "of the highest excellence"

The largest cork tree is in Portugal and produces enough cork for 100,000 bottles of wine per harvest

In the 17th Century thermometers were filled with brandy not mercury.

October 2010

Pinot Noir has to be one of the great grape varieties along with Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. It is certainly my favourite and, when good, is quite a drinking sensation. However I was put on the spot recently when asked by a customer to recommend a tasting case of Pinot Noir that would build up to a crescendo on wine number 12. The brief was to start with something simple and finish with something sensational commanding a top price of approx £75. I was asked to write some simple notes to accompany the wines, which were to be drunk on consecutive evenings. I explained in an introductory piece how Pinot Noir is the Holy Grail for most wine makers but that the grape is very fickle and is not suited to warm climates and yet has the versatility to be one of the main grapes in Champagne.

I started my case with wines from Romania and southern France which, although simple, demonstrated that Pinot is light and fruit-driven at this level. I then moved to basic Bourgogne Pinot which is hugely overpriced and often dull and acidic and I explained that, although it was from the area that makes the greatest Pinot of them all, one should never be tempted at the low level. From here I went 'down under' and picked an Aussie example which was a touch too rich and stewed explaining that, as a generalisation, Australia was too hot to produce subtle and delicate Pinots. Then it was back to Europe again as I selected a German example. From here I hit Chile where there can be great value and increasing quality as they discover the right areas for planting. I then put in a basic New Zealand wine from Marlborough, before going for an example from the more southerly Otago and then on to an Hamilton Russell from one of the southernmost vineyards in South Africa. For wine number 9 I went back to Burgundy for a youngish Beaune 1er Cru and then hopped across the Atlantic to California, where they make some top Pinot and for number 11 - an Oregon example from a perfect, cool-climate region. My running order might be disputed but I have not bored you with the names of the wines other than to say that the top example, at the price cap stated, was a Grand Cru Charmes Chambertin from a single estate in the heart of Burgundy.

What a brief - what fun. Just waiting for an invitation!

By the time you read this, The Oxford Wine Company will be up and running in Tetbury, Glos. We have taken two shops in the Chipping ( for those of you who know the area) and knocked them into one. The walls were two feet thick, which tested the builders, but everything is on track . There is one Wine Merchant and a supermarket in Tetbury with Wine Rack closing earlier this year, and the three girls running the shop are hoping to make an immediate impact in the area. They will!!

We have just done a great deal with Domaine Gayda in the Languedoc for those of you keen to learn a little more about wine. Instead of an evening course why not fly down to Carcassonne and spend up to a week experiencing the reality of living on a wine estate. It's much more interesting than turning the pages of a book, and the course is run by a Master of Wine. Full accredited wine qualifications can be gained. It may not be cheap but the experience will be unbeatable - a beautiful setting in a classic region with a top class restaurant to boot. Look at the website www.oxfordwine.co.uk.

September 2010

I have long been an advocate of minimum pricing of alcohol. Asda have said that they will not sell wine below the price they buy it for and state a figure of £1.99 which is the exact price of the duty and VAT applied to all wine under 15% alcohol, and the same on any wine regardless of its quality. Firstly when did you last see wine at this price? Secondly this figure must be below the total cost. They have not taken into account the cost of shipping the wine, the bottle, screwcap and packaging nor the UK bond and distribution costs. On top of this they actually have to pay for the wine itself which, even with the bullying tactics employed by most supermarket chains, will cost them something. So I maintain that the minimum cost is nearer £3.50 when analysed correctly. They are trying to take the moral high ground here but most of us can see through this. Anyway who wants to buy wine at this price when it is most likely to bear little resemblance to anything usually made from grapes!

Last month I discussed the English wine market and how in a good harvest and with larger plantings the quality is improving. That is until I tasted some samples sent to me by an unknown producer in the south of England. He was keen to promote his product produced from just a few acres and currently sold at farmer's markets. The wines were either corked, stale or bore more of a resemblance to cider. His sparkling wine fared no better so I put a plea out on Twitter for some samples of something better and was amazed at the response. Dragging me into 21st century technology seems to have worked!!

There will soon be an opportunity for wine lovers to taste wines free on 'Theo's Thirsty Thursdays' at our Oxford shop. Twice a month between 6 - 8 pm on the second and forth Thursdays of the month someone from the company (often the charismatic Theo) will be in the Oxford shop to taste and promote about three wines. These are likely to follow a theme but the tastings will be informal and casual. Anyone is welcome to pop in for a tasting glass or two and wander around the shop or chat in more detail about the wine. There will be no formal address so just wander in on your way back from work and try something new. We will alert you to these events but we will need your email address so leave this at the shop or contact Theo at Head Office 01865 301144 or theo@oxfordwine.co.uk The first tasting will be on 30th September when life returns to normal after the summer break!!

Wine Trivia

Frederic the Great of Prussia tried to ban the consumption of coffee and demanded that the populace drink alcohol instead.

In the 1800s Rum was considered excellent for cleaning hair and keeping it healthy whilst Brandy strengthened the roots!

During the reign of William III, a garden fountain was once used as a giant punch bowl. The recipe included 560 gallons of brandy, 1200 lbs of sugar, 25000 lemons, 20 gallons of lime juice and 5lbs of nutmeg. The barman rowed around in a small boat filling up guests' cups.

August 2010

Our new shop in the Botley Road is open and judging by the first few days trading is going to be a huge success. All stock currently in our main warehouse in Standlake (with the exception of vintage Armagnac) is on display and we have added a further range of Claret. The shop is managed by ex Oddbins High Street manager Sam Hellyer whose experience will be invaluable. The rest of the team are being put together and the shop is open 7 days a week from 10.00am - 8.00pm. There is no minimum purchase and as well as wine we have a fabulous range of spirits. We can now concentrate on opening in Tetbury in late August.

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The emergency budget was kind to the wine trade. It's not often I can be so generous to politicians as readers of this column will be well aware, but the delay in VAT is especially helpful and the fact that the government recognised the fact that their predecessors had put duty up three time in a calendar year was also a bonus. However they have made it clear that they will stick by the duty escalator which means a 2% above inflation rise next April. So no price changes yet and we may well delay the VAT rise as well so it ties in with producer increases and the duty rise, so a new list will probably not come into effect until May 2011.

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As I reported last month English wine producers enjoyed an excellent vintage in 2009 and production is at an all time high. Sparkling wine has been a particular success story but now Camel Valley has won the ultimate award - the Sparkling trophy in the International Wine Challenge. This wine was pitted against all the best sparkling wine and Champagne in the world and tasted blind so there can be no argument as to its quality! Camel Valley have been producing award winning wines in a beautiful corner of Cornwall since 1989 when Bob Lindo first planted vines there. This ideal setting on the sun drenched slopes near the Camel River seems to produce excellent quality grapes that perfectly suit the soil and micro climate. He has a healthy respect for traditional vineyard practices as well as a modern approach to wine making.

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It is easy to get stuck into old habits but those Gin drinkers among you must now move away from the traditional branded products and try Fever Tree tonic which comes in both the full fat and low fat format. Gins can be different but they say it is the tonic that makes the difference! It may not be as cheap as that well known brand but these guys blend soft spring water with natural quinine from the original Peruvian strain, hand cold pressed orange oil from Tanzania and Marigold from Africa - you get the idea!! They also do ginger ale and bitter lemon and win awards galore as well as supplying such restaurants as The Fat Duck in Bray, The Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong and El Bulli in Spain. I hear there's a new wine shop on the Botley road which stocks it!!!

July 2010

English Wine producers had a bumper harvest last year which is excellent news all round and in many cases the quality seems to be matching the quantity. Even red wine production, not easy in this climate, was well up. Yet I am still surprised how dubious some customers are when we try to sell them an English wine. Certainly it is well documented that English sparkling wine is up there with the best genuine Champagne, which is hardly surprising when you consider that the chalk soils of Sussex and Kent are very similar to those of the Champagne region of northern France and on a very similar latitude. Also the same grape varieties, predominantly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are used and with a little expertise from the winemaker a real quality product is often produced. English still wine can still suffer from a lack of fruit and too much acidity but I would urge the government to do what they can to support the English wine industry. Julia Trustram-Eve, whom I worked with many years ago, is now the marketing manager for English Wine. She says "people are investing in bigger acreage and the number of smaller vineyards run by hobbyists are disappearing. I wouldn't be so dramatic as to say it's a turning point, because it's an organic process, but the English wine industry is getting on a more professional footing."

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Does Terroir exist? To the first new world wine makers it was an outdated old world concept and was full of "French marketing bullshit." They argued that it was all about the wine making and certainly the new world had a bit to teach the French about practices in the cellar. Young Aussies and Kiwis said goodbye to raw, phenolic and oxidised wines and with some cleanliness and cooling as well as a few other processing aids they started to make wine from the same vineyards which was a actually pleasant to drink and full of pungent fruit flavours. Job done as far as they were concerned but over time it emerged that wines from certain blocks tasted differently than others and the young upstarts began to wonder if there wasn't something about terroir after all. Certainly they agreed that great wine is made in the vineyard and it has long been said that "...you can make a bad wine out of good grapes but not a good wine out of bad grapes." This is why not all Sancerre, Chablis or Châteauneuf du Pape tastes the same. Good wine merchants choose carefully, preferring to sell their customers a good example of the above but other retailers are less concerned and buy poorly made wine bearing the name for as little as they can. I was challenged by a trade customer last month who stated that she could get a better and considerably cheaper Nuits St. Georges from a cash and carry. So I took a big gamble and bought a bottle and invited seven guests including her and her chef to come and taste the wines blind adding a few more examples and a new world Pinot Noir just for fun. Well - surprise, surprise - the new world one emerged as the second best and the cheapest and all seven tasters marked the cash and carry example as the worst wine in the tasting. There was still mumbling about the fact her customers liked it but we should never drop our standards and continue to strive for good examples of wine within specified price points!!

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At the time of writing the sun is shining, we have a new government, the exchange rate is looking better and wine sales are booming. I have no idea if VAT will go up, wine duty may rise again or minimum pricing is introduced (please!), but I remain optimistic about the future as we open two more shops and increase our exposure to the wine drinking public. By Christmas I will know if my glass remains half full rather than half empty!!

June 2010

One of my most memorable wine experiences was drinking a bottle of 1953 La Tache, Domaine de Romanée Conti red Burgundy with lunch in the company of the late Auberon Waugh. Students of my wine class that evening still remind me of the pleasure they gained from that one sip of the filtered remains left in the bottle. So I was amused to read that the vineyard owners were recently blackmailed with a threat to poison the vines for a payment of almost one million euros. However the plan was ruined when the rather clumsy blackmailer was ambushed by the police in a cemetery near Chambolle Musigny whilst receiving wads of fake bank notes. The famous Domaine, which can sell wine at over £19000 a bottle, will still be left with its vines in perfect condition and seems to shrug off the incident in the usual Gallic manner. As they say - all publicity is good publicity!!

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As runner up in the International Wine and Spirit 'Independent Retailer of the Year' we should be justly proud of our most recent achievement but how on earth do you begin to judge such a competition? With the 'Decade of the Independent' supposedly on us there are so many good companies to choose from - all have staff with the passion, commitment and knowledge not found in the few remaining high street chains and superstores. The supermarkets are increasingly dumbing down their range and pressuring their remaining suppliers to cut costs. This has, eventually, to reflect on the quality of the juice so why not start being more imaginative and discover what good wine really tastes like!

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Did you know that in a £5 bottle of wine only about 50p's worth is the wine - the rest being taken up with duty, VAT, bottle, cork, label, transport, retailer profit etc? But if you spend £8 the wine element is about £3 as so many of the other costs are fixed. This should concentrate the mind a little next time you are glancing at the wine shelves.

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I hear that wine is now an acceptable part of a carefully controlled diet. This is great news for the wine industry and I will happily endorse this recent finding but there is so much confusion in the market place that it would be a good idea if someone could finally spell out the pro's and con's of drinking wine in sensible quantities. Confusion seems to reign but it would take an awful lot to convince me other than "a glass a day keeps the doctor away."

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Very shortly Oxford will finally have an Independent Wine Merchant within reach of the city. The original Oxford Wine Company closed its doors on 125 High Street in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War but now is about to open at 165 Botley Road in the site recently vacated by Faulkners Motorcycles who are moving round the corner. With free parking all around and the full range of wine and spirits available, this should become a great success and save Oxford customers the need to trek out to the Standlake store, which will remain as the Head Office and Distribution centre as well as being open to the public.

May 2010

So I hear the Gallo family are unknowingly involved in a wine scandal. They have been sold inexpensive French Merlot and Syrah as Pinot Noir and thus commanded a higher retail price for the product. This will not be a first. It is a well known fact that twice as much Italian Pinot Grigio is sold than actually grown and you only have to taste the bottom end to realize that any connection to grapes is entirely coincidental. In many parts of the world it is permitted to call a wine by a single grape variety provided at least 85% comes from that variety - however this does not seem to apply in the examples outlined above.

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We were rather stunned and amazed when a potential supplier became rude and abusive following a tasting of his wines. He was, he informed us, a serious and experienced wine maker who had studied for the highest exam in the wine trade. This it would seem gave him the right to tell us what we should enjoy. The wines were simply dreadful with only dried up fruit flavours and a nasty smelling nose. Apparently we did not understand the grape or terroir, but as far as we were all concerned they smelt so foul that our customers would have had them down the sink before returning for their money back. The arrogance of the man left us all quite stunned but being a pretentious git is one of the dangers of being in the wine business.

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I watched a TV program whilst on the running machine at my local gym recently. It was all about a ghastly group of people travelling around France in a bus and being booted off when they became particularly unpopular. It's the sort of mindbogglingly awful show you expect to find on at 3.30 in the afternoon. About twenty of these people were given a wine talk by the famous Chablis grower William Fevre. Their inability to listen, concentrate or respect him was embarrassing. They mostly hated his wine and were not afraid to tell him so before searching out German Niersteiner and fish and chips. I don't often feel sorry for the French but...

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How refreshing to come across Adi Badenhorst, the lively young eccentric former wine maker at Rustenberg. Adi has broken away to do his own thing and talks modestly about his achievements. He makes four interesting and characterful wines all highly lauded by Jancis Robinson yet he is the least stuffy and most refreshing wine maker I have ever met. When asked about blending he simply remarked that he "just chucks in a bit of this and a bit of that" but I suspect there is a little more to it than he suggests!

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Oddbins have been making a great play of the fact that they have reduced Laurent Perrier Rosé by 20% down to £44.99 on a special offer. Why is it then that we have had this same wine on our list all year at less than this even before our additional case discount? Is this just another example of companies over inflating their prices so as to appear to be offering a great deal to their customers?

April 2010

Over the years the French have pushed up wine prices but often failed to match this with an improvement in quality. For years they got away with it but their arrogance has come back to haunt them. With the exchange rate against them as well, the sales figures have plummeted or perhaps they are just being found out! This is a huge generalization as there are some excellent value wines available but too many producers have, in the past produced bland, fruitless wines with no personality which have sold for well beyond their worth. Research suggests that many of us are finding better value in Italy, Spain and Portugal and this is certainly something that we can substantiate.

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European wine prices are at last relatively stable as they fight to maintain market share. So when you see wine prices rise in the spring you can firmly blame the Chancellor and the increase in transport costs.

The nanny state is insisting that we put so many warnings on a wine label that it will soon become difficult to determine the name of the wine. By all means keep the public well informed via the media of the dangers of alcohol, but for heaven's sake give us some credibility in making our own judgements. It a bit like skiing in America when the purchase of a lunchtime Becks at a mountain restaurant is accompanied by vicious verbal and written warnings - and the sad thing is they are serious!!

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I went to the SITT tasting recently which is held in London and Manchester each year specifically for the independent wine trade. Here the producers and their agents only want to deal with small companies who have the real passion and dedication to sell their wines. These wines will not necessarily be cheap but they have character and personality and are often great value for money. They are deliberately being kept well away from supermarkets and the big chains whose bullying tactics and fickle approach to wine buying are all too well known. As one supplier told me recently "I can no longer cut the corners being demanded of me. I have a passion for wine making that is being compromised and I have been persuaded that the independent route will lead to stability in sales. This will allow me to make the best possible wine and get exposure to the most sophisticated buyers."

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Is it sacrilege to mix two wines? Of course it happens all the time as most wine is blended to a style before bottling. A Cabernet and a Merlot from Bordeaux are not grown together but fermented separately and blended later. On this basis was I wrong to throw together three half drunk bottles into a decanter and stir? This was thought out - we had a young brooding French country Syrah, an older Rhone Villages that was on the cusp and a rich vibrant Carignan. The result - a stunning Rhone style blend drunk and enjoyed by all my guests. Did I tell them? You'll never know!!

Ted Sandbach