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Hands Up – I Have Serious Christmas Wine Envy

Buying Christmas presents? They’re pretty easy, even if it means a bit of planning because of COVID. Settling on what to cook on the 25th? With so much choice, there might be a bit of indecision, but it doesn’t last long.

When it comes to wine, however, that is a different story. What can we drink that is special enough for the day… and will look impressive on Instagram? While I’ve a collection of lovely wines, I can’t help feeling inadequate when it comes to choosing bottles for special occasions. My wines are not starry enough. Or if they are, they won’t go with the food (should’ve thought about that earlier). Or they need another few years. 

While I’ve always liked wine, I didn’t get into it seriously until about 15 years ago. I only started building a collection in 2011 when my kitchen was redone and I had room from an Artevino wine cabinet. Before then, I bought good stuff – but for drinking, not saving. When I did build a collection, I kept buying them in sixes or twelves. Just how many pictures can I post of Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2012 and still get likes? 

I like to think I’m above feeling pressure from Instagram. It’s not a contest, I tell myself. It’s all about seeing what friends are up to, and stay connected wherever they are in the world. I love Instagram for the inspiration I get for new restaurants, or introducing me to different producers. But this all changes when it comes to Christmas wines. I see line up after line up of wines I can only dream of tasting. Is my 2005 Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux from a very minor Chateau up to snuff? Will I get accused of infanticide if I crack open a bottle of top notch South African Pinot that everyone knows needs another five years, at least. I could, of course, not post any pictures at all – but then I wouldn’t look like a credible wine professional would I? After all, it is the unwritten law that – if you want to be taken seriously in wine – you must broadcast what unicorn you have just slain to accompany your Christmas feast.

It’s bad enough that I can’t drink nearly as much as I used to. I go days without a glass of wine now, in the hope of better sleep. The Coravin is my best friend. This, in turn, adds additional pressure on what to drink on Christmas Day. It has to be special because I am drinking less, so nothing short of amazing will do.

I do find joy in searching through my wine store/cellar to see if there’s anything I have forgotten about. I don’t bother with any system as generally, I have a pretty good idea of what is in there. Lots of Riesling… why do I have so much Riesling? It’s not even my favourite grape.

This year, I fished out a Marc Tempé ‘Zellenberg’ Pinot Blanc 2013 which I’d overlooked on many other occasions. When I added the bottle to my collection, it was listed by the glass in so many places, including my own wine bar.  Lovely wine. But this bottle hadn’t aged well under my watch. The core of the wine had gone completely, leaving just sweetness. So I swung completely the other way and cracked open the remaining half bottle of some previously Coravined Urbina Rioja Reserva Especial 1998. No idea when the needle first went in. Sometime this year, I’m guessing. It still tasted great. Mellow and evolved, but still with a good bit of life – dried plums, tobacco, forest floor. We’d stashed this bottle when what seemed to be an everlasting vintage finally came to an end. And it was just perfect with our very late turkey lunch.

I might not have opened rare bottles of wine or spenny, cult  Burgundies. But I did still post the wines on Instagram. What a relief when I saw someone else post an Urbina Reserva Especial from a younger vintage. At  least I have some bragging rights left.

The Five HUGE Mistakes You Are Making When You Buy Wine

You’ve seen them, right? Those Twitter campaigns by a national wine warehouse and its online division telling people how stupid they are to buy wine that costs less than £5 or more than £10. And that if you spend much more than £10, then you are an utter fool because all you are doing is helping the winemaker buy a new, fancy Porsche. You know, that winemaker renting space in the corner of a winery who has to scrape together funds to show their wines in key export markets.

I’m not sure how telling consumers they’re stupid really helps them feel positive about a product. But wine carries so much social baggage – no one wants to look stupid buying the wrong bottle – that good old FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) must translate into sales. So, here’s my stab at telling wine drinkers where they’re going wrong…

ONE: Stop choosing wines by country. You’ve learnt to think this way because of how shops have traditionally segmented their wines, which is bonkers if you think about it. You can’t taste Italy. You can taste a light, silky Pinot Nero from Alto Adige or a full bodied, smooth Primitivo from Puglia. Which do you think you’d prefer? It’s smarter to understand and remember the regions you like. Better still, the styles.

TWO:  Stop confusing fruitiness with sweetness. It’s not that hard. Eat a peach. Then suck a boiled candy. Hopefully, you can tell the difference and wine merchants will stop rolling their eyes at you. Feel free to slap any merchant who then confuses you with talk about “sweet fruit”.

THREE: Stop judging a rosé by its colour. Dark doesn’t necessarily mean sweet. Unless you are buying it in the pub or from the convenience store. Then maybe it does. Yes, the aesthetics of a pale rosé are lovely, but if it’s just about the colour, drop a bit of red food dye into your Pinot Grigio and save yourself the angst.

FOUR: Buy what you can afford – drink the best that you can within your budget. But if you can afford a decent bit of organic, grass fed ribeye and some artisan cheese, don’t insult it with some bogoff plonk that’s got more additives than your entire dinner party food shop. (And if your guests do turn up with nice wine, serve it FFS.)

FIVE. Stop reading anything that tells you that you are wrong in your wine choices. Or that you are making mistakes that are so embarrassing you should walk around with a paper bag over your head.

Oops. Too late.



The Night I Forgot To Bring Wine (Again)

My mother, Margaret, died last December after complications from Alzheimer’s following a broken hip operation. Watching her decline has been truly awful, as anyone who has seen a loved one cruelly fade through dementia knows. I wrote this in 2016, when she was still able to enjoy a little bit of wine. It was meant to be a lighthearted piece about drinking the cheaper more commercial stuff, and trying to keep in touch with reality. I just couldn’t post it at the time. Now, I see it as a fond memory of how an average bottle can become quite special when it creates a connection with someone you love.



I’ve done it again. I’ve arrived at my mum’s house without wine. (more…)

Toes Black In Lagar

They say that good things come to those that wait.

I’m not just talking about the embarrassingly long time it has taken me to write this piece on port (I went out to Portugal courtesy of Quinta do Noval last September). But also that, as a Joanna-come-lately to the wine trade, I finally clapped eyes on the breathtaking slopes and terraces of the Douro Valley. And had my first experience of treading grapes.

At wine school I was told it was hard work. But, by the time I climb into a lagar (a granite vat) of touriga nacional grapes, much of the treading has already done by a regular team (the warmth of the pulp at one end suggests that fermentation has already started) and it’s all pretty easy. The squishing and bursting of the grapes underfoot feels extremely satisfying, if a little addictive. I have quite the pouty bottom lip when we’re told treading needs to stop for fear of extracting to much colour and tannin from the grapes.

This traditional way of crushing grapes for port has, by and large, been mechanised – especially at the cheaper end of the market. Don’t fool yourself that anyone’s feet have been near your £10 bottle picked up at the supermarket. However, many producers do still carry on the tradition for their ‘dated’ ports like vintage, late bottled vintage (LBV) and the best tawnies. Quinta do Noval is no exception, and only resorts to mechanics for its finer ports – to punch down overnight the mass of grape skins, seeds and stems that rise to the top to that they keep in contact with the liquid beneath.

The trodden grapes will spend a few days in their lagar. That morning, we’d seen a vat of grapes that had been stomped three days beforehand, with little bubbles of CO2 forming under the cap. The juice would be separated from its cap the following day and pumped out into a large barrel called a pipa. En route it would pass through a small trough where grape spirit would be added to stop any more fermentation.

On average, the port wine stays in its pipa for up to nine months the following year, but it depends on the quantity of the harvest and the amount of wine made. Then all the young wines are moved downhill in tankers to an acclimatised cellar and blending room carved into the hillside, where decisions will be made on their destiny.

Like all port houses, Quinta do Noval used to ship its wines down river to the cooler Vila Nova de Gaia, which lies across the river from Porto, but wanted to minimise the amount of travelling and upset for the young wines. It claims to be the first port house to build a cellar that was protected from the punishing Douro heat. (Bottling is the only process done away from the quinta, on flat land in Alijo above the Douro hills.)

Inside the cellar lies a hall where barrel upon barrel of tawny port – dating back to 1937 –  lies sleeping. Tawnies spend a lot longer in cask than other dated ports, and their slow exposure to oxygen results in figgy, caramel tones. The very best is a colheita (pronounced col-yay-ta) from a single harvest. In other words, the tawny version of a vintage port. It’s a style at which Quinta do Noval excels.

Our little group of wine writers spends a few moments contemplating the deliciousness inside those casks. Our prayers are answered when, that day we have the superbly silky Colheita 2000 after lunch – a little slice of heaven. Then, prior to grape treading, the Colheita 1937, which showed such vitality for a 79-year-old wine and had years ahead of it.  I’ll be honest though, from all the Quinta do Noval ports we tasted on the trip, it was the Colheita 2000 which stole my heart. It isn’t just good things that come to those who wait. Great things come, too.


Quinta do Noval ports are distributed in the UK by Gonzalez Byass

Wine In The Time Of Guidelines

Hello, my name’s Paola and I’m a peddler of death. I have a licence – to kill. Entering my shop could seriously harm your health.

An exaggeration, of course. But, if you’re in wine retail, like me, it does feel a bit like, following the new government drinking guidelines.

My fears of a future where the windows of wine shops will have to be covered up, and all wine labels utilitarian, may not seem so outlandish after all. (more…)

Marisco Makes A Crafty Move

Brent Marris has a lot to answer for.

The Marlborough winemaker was responsible for my New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc crush back in the day, when I would pile my Majestic trolley high with Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc. When I would smugly inform my passé Oyster Bay-guzzling friends that the winemaker had moved on.

He was also, it turns out, partly responsible for my utter contempt for the tropical fruit-scented gloop that became the dominant style for a while. (more…)

Wine On TV: Why The Price Isn’t Right

In a recent episode of the BBC’s Food & Drink, chef and presenter Tom Kerridge visits The Ginger Pig in London’s Borough Market and picks up a 500g of fillet steak. Not a cheap cut, I think you’ll agree.

Later, he cooks two large tuna steaks. No mention is made of how much they cost. No apologies either for using what many people would see as luxury items.

Yet when it comes to the wine matches, much is made of the price. We know first that both are under a tenner. Then we find out that the Jacob’s Creek Pinot Noir is £7.50 and the Casillero de Diabolo Carmenère is “seven or eight pounds, something like that”.  If the cost of the food doesn’t matter, why is the price of the wine so important? (more…)

All The Wine Blog Posts I Didn’t Write

The role of the wine blogger is something the industry loves to debate. As someone who entered the wine industry late, it’s quite startling to see how much energy is expended on the topic, often by other writers themselves.

The latest misdeed getting everyone’s knickers in a twist (mine included, obviously) is whether bloggers have an obligation to write about wineries who wine and dine them, a response by ex-critic and now blogger Steve Heimoff to an article in trade magazine Harpers accusing bloggers of bad behaviour if they didn’t write anything after visiting a winery who’d paid for their trip.

“In other descriptions of commerce, a one-way transfer of value could also be called ‘theft’,” opined Dr. Damien Wilson, who leads the MSc Wine Business programme at the Burgundy School of Business.

It seems *gasp* that wineries are just like any other client who has spent a bit of money on PR and expects coverage as a result. If you want guaranteed coverage, pay for advertising. (more…)

Steak Me I’m Yours

One of the most frequent questions I get asked as a retailer is: “What wine goes with steak?”

The answer? Depends on the cut and how you’re cooking it.

Pinot Noir, for example, works well with a fried fillet steak. There’s not much fat and, frankly, not much flavour to battle it out with the Pinot. Add a mushroom sauce and you’ve got a bit more potential magic.

A chargrilled ribeye can handle something more robust, like an Argentinian Malbec, a gutsy Southern Rhone or a Shiraz. But these are broad brush strokes. There’s no exact science. It depends, for example, on the age of the wine and the style of the producer. And what you’re in the mood for. Still want Pinot Noir? Try a more concentrated style, like one from Central Otago in New Zealand.

I go to a fair few wine matching dinners. Often, these matches are theoretical; this wine should go with this dish.  Like blind dates, though, what might look compatible on paper doesn’t always produce sparks in real life.

I reckon Barry Vera, executive chef at STK London, had done a little road testing ahead an evening with Penfolds wines, called Red & Red. (more…)

Unlocking The Door To Chablis

You’ve got to hand it to Chablis. A name even those who claim to know nothing about wine can trot out when asked what they like.

But with this brand familiarity comes a huge amount of ignorance. I’m not talking about people who say they hate Chardonnay but love Chablis.

I’m talking about me.

Before my recent visit to Chablis, about the only thing I really knew was the grape, location and soil. The taste? Lean and steely, of course. The rather lush one I stock in my shop had to be an anomaly.

Now, after tasting my way though 100+  Chablis over three days, I may not be a Jedi Master, but I can now feel the force. (more…)