“[I]t is the wine that leads me on, the wild wine that sets the wisest man to sing at the top of his lungs, laugh like a fool – it drives the man to dancing… it even tempts him to blurt out stories better never told.”
― Homer, The Odyssey
I read an article several years ago about the emergence of the British wine industry. I have been to the UK on many occasions, and I even lived there for a while. However, I realized that I had never had an English wine. I had a business trip to London recently, and I was determined to remedy that. I was on a quest to taste English wines!
London has a population of almost 10 million people. It is a historical city dating back to the Romans in 50 A.D. It has become an international political and financial center attracting millions of visitors and immigrants annually. London is considerably more ethnically diverse than it was when I first went there as a child. Walking down the busy streets you see a vast array of people speaking many different languages. On my left is an Asian couple standing on the corner with a child in tow (in the UK, the term “Asian” typically means South Asia, as in India or Pakistan, whereas the term generally refers to East Asia, as in China or Thailand, in the United States). A Middle Eastern man in his 20s speaking Arabic on his mobile whilst wearing a football jersey (real football, the type played with your feet) is walking toward me. On my right is a scrum huddled together under an awning to protect themselves from the omnipresent rain. They are smoking ciggies and enjoying a pint outside a pub. Listening, you can hear their various accents. One woman’s accent is clearly Scottish. The others she is speaking with are obviously Spanish, Irish, and Caribbean.
The shop was packed with people, and they were pouring some excellent wines. The cheese pairings were faultless.
I used to think that the English had the worst food in the world until I went to the old Soviet Union (at least the Brits have heard of spices). Now, you can find incredible food in London, especially, Middle Eastern (my favorite) and Asian.
My hotel was in Mayfair, a posh neighborhood located in London’s West End in the City of Westminster. The City of Westminster has some of London’s most well-known landmarks, such as Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), Big Ben, and the British version of the White House, 10 Downing Street. Mayfair includes Park Lane, Piccadilly, Soho, and Hyde Park. Mayfair is home to many countries’ embassies, Michelin starred restaurants, as well as some of the best shopping in the world, found along Oxford, Bond, and Regent Streets. If I was going to find English wines, it would be in Mayfair.
Late Night Haunts
I discovered Shepard Market Wine House, a small but delightful wine shop not far from my hotel. It would become my late-night watering hole. I stopped by following a late-evening dinner, and I met the manager, Andrea, an Italian ex-pat who had lived in the UK for more than 10 years. I am called Andrea when I am in Italy, which is the Italian variant of my name. He loved wine, so we immediately hit it off and got along famously. My search for English wine was going to be simple, or so I thought.
I told Andrea about my quest, and he sheepishly told me that the shop had none. Moreover, he had never tasted one. I had baked brie and a glass of Château Poujeaux Moulis-en-Médoc (2006) and contemplated my task. Andrea asked if I wanted to reconsider my mission, showing me an array of Old and New World wines and offering me a glass of Domaine Henri Boillot Bourgogne 2014. I demurred, determined to soldier on.
Wine, Cheese, and Berry Bros.
Perhaps, I need to go to a larger wine shop. It was Saturday, and I decided to go to one of my former haunts. Berry Bros. & Rudd is a family-run British wine and spirits merchant founded in London in 1698. In fact, Berry Bros. is Britain’s oldest wine and spirits merchant. Part of its success is due to its location at 3 St. James’s Street, in the City of Westminster, adjacent to St. James Palace, and a short walking distance from Buckingham Palace and Parliament.
Berry Bros. just happened to be having a joint wine and cheese tasting that day with the cheeses being presented by Paxton & Whitfield, a London cheesemonger that has been operating since 1797. The shop was packed with people, and they were pouring some excellent wines. The cheese pairings were faultless. But, first, I perused the shelves. The usual suspects were present. There was an outstanding selection of French wines broken down by region. Germany was well represented, as well as Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sardinia, and Hungary. The New World’s representatives were proudly on display. Wines from the United States were prominently exhibited on the shelves. Rows of wine from California were on the shelves, even wines from the place that does not exist (this is an inside joke). There were also New World wines from Washington, Oregon, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, and Australia, all conspicuously presented.
Am I missing something? I am in the land of Baby Archie! Where was the English wine? Berry Bros. did not have any! I consoled myself with some cheese and a liberally poured glass of Pouilly-Vinzelles La Soufrandière (2016). This wine is a white Burgundy from Southern Mâconnais. Pale yellow in color, with a lovely nose of peaches, honeysuckle, and flowers. On the palate, the wine is medium to full-bodied with mouthwatering acidity and a delicate finish. This Chardonnay was paired with copious amounts of Cornish Yarg, a semi-hard cheese, which is left to mature in nettle leaves resulting in a mouldy cheese with a creamy, lemony texture.
The Storm Pinot Noir (2016) from Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa, a Wine Spectator 92 pointer, that they selected was outstanding. This is a beautiful wine, rich red in color, and Old World in style. The nose is piquant and has ripe red and dark cherries. The palate follows the nose, and it has delightful tannins. This Pinot is aged for 11 months in Burgundy barriques, 25,00% of which were new. They produce only 250 cases.
I am a big fan of Barolos, and Berry Bros. had a powerhouse. Giovanni Rosso, Barolo DOCG (2014), is a 100.00% Nebbiolo varietal from Piedmont, Italy. Barolos have a legalized minimum aging and alcohol requirements. This wine is a beautiful garnet in color with 14.00% alcohol and a nose that is overflowing with red and black cherry, rose petals, graphite, baking spices, licorice, leather, and various wild herbs. It is a full-bodied wine, with firm, but not overly sharp, tannins. The minerality is pronounced leading to a long-lasting finish. This Barolo is intended to age for decades.
The wines at Berry Bros. were incredible, but my quest for English wines was proving Quixotic. Perhaps, an even larger wine shop would have what I was looking for. Hedonism Wines, 3-7 Davies Steet, Mayfair, is my favorite wine shop in London. Stores such as Vivian Westwood, Alfred Dunhill, and a beautiful Porsche dealership are located nearby.
Hedonism began as the brainchild of the founder of Russia’s largest mobile telephone retailer when he could not locate his favorite bottle in London. (That sounds familiar, and a bit ominous.) Hedonism is a shop with two stories devoted to the grape. It even has two rooms devoted exclusively to Sine Qua Non wines, some of which are cradled in gnarly hands projecting from the walls. The large formats available are amazing, including 6.00L Imperials (Methuselah) and 9.00L (Salmanazar) wines bottles. Surely, I would find English wines at Hedonism. Alas, no.
Hedonism did have one thing to console me. It has six Enomatic sampling machines, which with the purchase of a sample card allows you to try 1.00 oz. pours of some amazing wines. I spent the next few hours (and a small fortune) sampling wines as varied as Mouton-Rothschild, Penfold’s Grange, Sassicaia, Latour, Sine Qua Non, Château D’Yquem, and Haut-Brion.
Et tu, Harrods?
Perhaps it was my approach that was wrongheaded. Why not try something totally different. Harrods is a decidedly upscale department store located in Knightsbridge, which is adjacent to Mayfair, and it has a wine shop in the store. Ironically, although I had been there many times, I noticed something different this time as I approached. People were picketing in front of a building that was located across from Harrods. I stopped my walk for a moment and noticed that some of the placards had anti-US sentiments. I then paid closer attention to the building being picketed. I have never noticed the Ecuadorian embassy, and the picketers were there in support of Julian Assange (this was before he was evicted from the embassy).
Harrods’ wine shop is located on the bottom floor of the store. It is a large and beautiful shop befitting Harrods. The wine selection is expansive. However, no English wines. Et tu Harrods? Harrods did have a bottle of Catena Zapata, Nicolas Catena Zapata (2010) Bordeaux blend at a competitive price, even taking into consideration the Sterling/Dollar conversion rate. Thus, it now graces my wine cellar.
There is a Purple Unicorn!
It was my next to last night in London, and I still had not sampled, or even held a bottle of English wine. I was feeling dejected. Richard Raymond, a friend of mine, and I decided to have dinner at a remarkable Indian restaurant, Veeraswamy, 99 Regent Street, Mayfair. I arrived before Richard and pursued the ample wine list. The usual Old World wines filled the list. They also had a selection of Indian wines. Wine Spectator did a cover article on Indian wines about 12 years ago, and I had been anxious to try some. Unfortunately, they did not have any available. However, toward the end of the wine list, I found the purple unicorn! There it was. Veeraswamy had a bottle of Cottonworth Classic Cuvée sparkling wine (NV), and it was available!
The Cottonworth is a dry sparkling wine blend of 60.00% Chardonnay, 27.00% Pinot Noir, and 13.00% Pinot Meunier, varietals from the South Downs region of Hampshire, England. Hampshire is blessed to share the same soil type and similar climate to the Champagne region of France.
The Cottonworth has a light straw color with a nose of brioche and an orchard of crisp ripe green apples and lemons. It is a dry, high acidity, light bodied wine with minerality and a fresh apple and yeasty flavor. This is a drinkable bubbly with a medium finish. The wine is made in the “traditional method” (Méthode Traditionnelle). Will Cottonworth be able to use the term méthode champenoise, which is restricted to use in the EU by wines exclusive to Champagne, if the UK should ever manage to leave?
My quest to experience English wines was finally at an end. It culminated with not quite a bang (more of a pop), but certainly not a whimper. I know there is a greater depth to the English wine industry, but for now, I can say that “My job here is complete!” I took the remaining wine and shared it with my friend Andrea at Shepard Market Wine House.
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