Empire of Booze, Henry Jeffreys, and three bottles

There are wine books and there are wine books.

If you are just starting to learn about wine you need two books: “The Oxford Companion to Wine” (Jancis Robinson) and “The World Atlas of Wine” (Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson).  These two are so good and, between them, so comprehensive in their coverage of just exactly what is what that, unless you need to start pretending to be some sort of authority, they’ll do you forever.

Then you get a bit specialist.  “Inside Burgundy” (Jasper Morris) is the book I reach for most when I need to know something.  It is impeccable.  “The Wines of Burgundy” (Clive Coates) is up there too.  For a reference point on older wines then “Vintage Wine” (Michael Broadbent) is a must.  And the paragraph above is lifted straight from what I wrote about “Pomerol” (Neal Martin), which is the sort of book I’d like to write.  Neal’s book is the last wine book I’ve read.

The wine book that I am currently reading is totally different and, I have to confess, miles and miles better than I thought it would be.  Henry Jeffreys’ “Empire of Booze” explores the influence of the British Empire on, well, booze.  “If not for Britain”, the note on the back cover states, “most of the World’s favourite drinks would not exist, not even the French ones.”

I’m half-way through it, having covered the subjects of Cider, Port, Marsala, Gin, Rum and Beer, each illuminated with a combination of dry wit and obvious research.  Bar an horrific second-half collapse it’s an excellent read; if it were a wine that I’d just tasted it would be of the sort that I’d be inspired to write about or, in an earlier life, simply invoice a few of my best customers for with a quick note of explanation.

In short, “Empire of Booze” is an excellent and entertaining read.  Well written, clearly well-researched, amusing and informed.  If it wasn’t any good you’d be reading something else here today; that was the deal.

Which is a roundabout introduction to Mr Jeffreys.  I met him at the Fortnum and Mason Food and Drinks awards a couple of years back.  We were both shortlisted but both came away empty-handed and over-heated (posh shops don’t do air conditioning very well).   I recommend his book.  Herewith his answers to the Vinolent three bottles questions:

What was the first wine/bottle that got you into the whole wine thing?

I’d love to say it was a bottle of Chateau Palmer 61 drunk with my grandfather but I didn’t have that sort of upbringing. My parents drank wine but I never particularly liked the sort of hard earthy wine my father bought. In retrospect it was probably quite good Bordeaux. I much preferred going to the pub and drinking beer with my father.

My epiphany was with a much more prosaic bottle, a Montecillo Crianza, a Rioja that set me back £5 in 1997. I was a student in Leeds and this was an astronomical amount to spend when you could buy wine for £2.50.

We drank it over Christmas dinner with my housemates in our damp red brick house in Headingley. Most reds I had drunk at that point had either been sour and unpleasant, cornershop Fitou for example, or jammy and sweet, Hardy’s Stamp of Australia. The Rioja though managed to be rich and full of fruit but also savoury. It tasted like I’d always hoped red wine would taste but never did.

After that wine, I stopped buying wine from cornershops and became a regular customer at Oddbins.

What was the first wine/bottle that took you closer to your maker?

This is a difficult one to answer as following that rioja epiphany I got a job in Oddbins in Headingley where we drank a lot of very good wine though often in slightly strange circumstances: a bottle of Pesquera drunk after a techno night or a 1976 Von Buhl Spatlese drunk whilst watching the sun come up over Harrogate. These were memorable wines and I was certainly closer to my maker though not sure the wines were the main reason.

The one I’m going to pick, therefore, is a Bollinger RD 1985 drunk in the back room of an Oddbins shop in London. It was just before Christmas and the shop team had saved up all their scams (fiddles with the EPOS system – basically fraud) for the year and spent the money on Champagne. I hate to say this but we were drinking it with takeaway McDonald’s. The mixture of fine wine with low surrounding was typical of my two years with the firm.

The Bollinger was not like any Champagne I’d ever had before. It was a deep golden colour and the texture was like custard, sparkling custard, if you can imagine such a thing. The complexity was simply astonishing. We were fairly blasé about good Champagne but this made everyone stop and marvel. It turned me on to a mature, rich style of champagne which I wish I had the money to drink more often.

What was the best wine/bottle you have had this year?

This year I was lucky enough to try two extremely rare and expensive fortified wines. Firstly: Barbadillo – ridiculously expensive, £8000 a bottle – Versos sherry which is almost worth the money. I brought a tiny sample home for my wife and it filled our flat with heavenly aromas. Also Graham’s 90 year-old Tawny made especially for the Queen’s birthday was pretty special. A snip at £700 a bottle.

But the one I am going to choose is a little more prosaic but I’ve been thinking about it since January. It was a present from my older brother who lives in Australia. It’s a Rockford Basket Press Shiraz 2012. I know you’re meant to keep these wines for years but, Coravin in hand, I had a little taste. God it was good. So much of everything: bright red fruit, vanilla, mint, cedar spice – but never too much – and with an amazing freshness and life. I ended up just opening the damn thing and drinking it with my wife and a nice piece of rump steak. I still can’t get the taste out of my head.

As a young wine snob, I would have turned my nose up at such a beefy idiosyncratic, perhaps even unsubtle, wine. I liked Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Northern Rhone. It’s taken a long time for me to get over my prejudice against Australian wines but I am now a Rockford convert. To me they’re the Australian equivalents of Lopez de Heredia or Chateau Musar. I hope they never get swept up in the trend for lighter wines.

I thank Henry for his answers.  You can buy his book here: Empire of Booze

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