Book Review: Firing Blancs by Peter Stafford-Bow

Who doesn’t love a trilogy?  Back to the Future, Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, even Star Wars (still 3 very different trilogies). 

So it was a welcome surprise when an email popped in to my inbox asking me if I’d like to take a look at the third literary offering from wine buyer turned author Peter Stafford-Bow; Firing Blancs.

Wine books may generally tend to be directed towards academia but here, as in the first two books Corkscrew and Brut Force (see my articles here and here), the wine facts are paired with laugh-out-loud situations and comedy, giving a refreshing (and unique, at the time of writing) take on the wine business. 

Although those with knowledge of the wine world will absolutely see rewarding extra detail and in-jokes within the narrative, the books are easily suited to non-wine lovers alike.

Yes, there actually is a Smiley wine!

As with the first two novels, Firing Blancs sees us reunited with our wine-buying central hero Felix Hart, once again accidentally finding himself in a spot of retail bother, this time accidentally choking his CEO to death during a boardroom presentation. 

Banished from the office as far away as they can get him, Hart ends up posted to South Africa in an effort to improve the pay and conditions for workers in the local vineyards.  The comic narrative routinely sees him also try people’s patience, try lots of the local food and wines and ultimately, try to stay alive!

One of the central themes of the book is the work of the fictional Fairly Trod organisation, a wine themed alternate-universe version of the real Fairtrade organisation.  Ensuring that all workers are treated equally and remunerated fairly, the author would have had no way of foreseeing just how prominent the Black rights movement would be at the time of the book’s release.  Handled sensitively and entirely appropriately within the narrative it’s a serious topic that never overweighs itself or becomes preaching.

Full of rich and layered characters, Firing Blancs is clearly more complex than its previous younger siblings, but complex in a good way.  The weaving plot layers canter on at a fast pace, leaving the reader turning page after page, eager to find out how each situation will affect the next. 

The facet most appealing to me was the richly drawn South African backdrop, and the little details peppered throughout which could only be written by someone who has lived and breathed that air.  My chats with author Peter around the time of the launch of Corkscrew indeed confirmed that his first novel was conceived when he was posted out there on business.

Like a good wine, the Felix Hart saga is maturing well with age.  The book is absolutely made for the ‘holiday read’ market but, if you can’t get away this year due to the pandemic, read it in the garden with a glass of something lovely and let it mentally take you overseas instead. 

As Firing Blancs was being launched, I once again spoke to Peter about the future of the Felix character; will it be left as a solid trilogy or are there further stories out there waiting to be written?  Thankfully I can confirm that we’ll be treated to more shenanigans in due course as Felix makes his way around Asia and Hong Kong, and who knows what this will look like in a post-Covid world?  Let’s hope it isn’t too long before we find out.

Firing Blancs, and the previous novels Corkscrew and Brut Force are highly recommended and available at all good book retailers, including Amazon.

Why is a Wine bottle 75cl?

With years of tradition behind it, wine isn’t a product that changes fast.  Sure, certain grape varieties come and go as trends and tastes change, but when it comes to serving wine, the glass bottle has been the method of choice for centuries.

Other formats quietly exist, and bag-in-box wine recently made a modest comeback helped by the fact that the quality has come on leaps and bounds since the dinner parties of the 1980’s.  Last summer’s trend of wine served in a can was generally met with more disdain.

Canned wine does have its benefits.  They’re light and portable which is perfect for al fresco drinking or when you’re on the move, plus you get the benefit of keeping the wine airtight and fresh, just like in a bottle.  You can get smaller measures than when you open a standard bottle (and perhaps drinking more than you should as “it’s a shame to waste it”), but something about wine from a can just feels…wrong.

We happily switch from drinking beer in a bottle to beer in a can, but with wine it doesn’t currently feel 100% natural to do so.

But then, you may ask, what makes the 75cl glass bottle so right?  Using glass makes absolute sense being inert, sturdy, and able to be mass produced, but why is 75cl the accepted size?  There’s lots of fanciful myths and, whilst it would be romantic to believe that 75cl was the maximum lung capacity of a glass-blowers breath or was scientifically calculated as the perfect amount of wine for 2 people to share, the truth is much more mathematical.

Historically, barrels of wine would be shipped over from France and bottled here to aid the logistics of transporting heavy and breakable glass by boat, but producers eventually started bottling at the château to stop shippers adulterating their wine in any way. 

These barrels had the capacity to store 225 litres which, when split down to a nice even 300 bottles, gave them their 75cl size.  Interestingly, wine merchants and producers will tell you that the 75cl size isn’t actually the best for showing off the liquid inside.  Less likely to suffer temperature variations, the greater volume of wine in larger bottle formats such as the Magnum and Jeroboam still only comes in to contact with the same amount of air as found in a standard bottle, thereby slowing the ageing process.

These larger bottles are visually impressive and create a real sense of occasion, their powerful biblical names such as Balthazar, Salmanazar and Nebuchadnezzar, only serving to make them even grander.  In reality though they are heavy and awkward to pour, and definitely not for opening on weeknights when you only fancy one glass.

So, it seems that the 75cl bottle is here to stay.  That’s probably best as it’s hard to imagine saying to someone “Fancy coming over tonight and sharing a bag of wine?”.

Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!

Two things any successful business needs are the ability to launch their product ahead of any rivals, followed by a successful marketing campaign to drive the resulting sales.  Beaujolais Nouveau, made with hand-harvested Gamay grapes from the famed Burgundy region was able to tap in to both of these and yet, it’s much less popular than it used to be.

In the early 1950’s Beaujolais producers set themselves the challenge of beating competitors to market by presenting a drinkable wine as early as possible.  Techniques such as speeding up fermentation time were developed to give a ‘finished’ product in as little as 6–8 weeks from the grape harvest. 

In order to create a level playing field between all Burgundian producers a standard release date was set as the third Thursday of November (the 21st this year), a date which also happily tied in nicely with the lucrative Thanksgiving and Christmas markets.

Restricting customers to only being allowed to purchase bottles at one-minute past midnight on what became known as ‘Beaujolais Nouveau Day’ turned out to be marketing genius, akin to midnight iPhone launches these days.  People flocked to be one of the first to taste the new vintage.

The modern day story began in 1970 when two London based wine writers, Clement Freud and Joseph Berkmann, decided to make a bet with each other – who could be the first to pick up a case of the midnight released Beaujolais wine in France and get it back across the channel ready for dinner in London that night?

For the first two years it was a private competition (which Berkmann won both times), but as the word and novelty spread, more and more people began joining in, devising ever cleverer ways of shipping the wine.  Thus the ‘Beaujolais Run’ was born, spearheading a massive sales and popularity boom.  In typical 1980’s extravagance, one member of the RAF used his connections to ship the wine across in a Harrier Jet.  It might have been expensive, but he set a speed record unlikely to be broken. 

Although popularity eventually slipped away from the novelty, the ‘Beaujolais Run’ is still going strong, albeit in an updated guise.  Knowing that driving as fast as you can to deliver wine is likely to cause an accident, the rules have been amended from the fastest delivery to the shortest delivery by distance.  You’re now as likely to find precious classic cars making the trip alongside expensive super cars, all the while collecting money for charity.

As you’d expect from a wine produced in a mere 6-8 weeks, Beaujolais Nouveau (not to be confused with the longer living wines from the wider Beaujolais region) is meant to be drunk young, a curio rather than a wine that stands up to serious critical appraisal.  Uncomplicated, lively and fresh, bottles should be drunk within a year, and will benefit from a little light chilling to draw out the fresh berry fruits. 

Manzanos 1961 Rioja (Take 2)

I wrote last year about an extremely rare parcel of 1961 wine available exclusively through Laithwaites as part of a heritage programme with the Spanish producer Manzanos. Incredibly, as part of their ongoing cellar clearance, they have been able to offer a further few bottles.

I’ve re-tasted this next cache and can confirm they are every bit as good as the first. Please find below my original notes on the cellar and wonderful rare wine which I heartily recommend you should snap up before they once again becomes history!

Vinous dreams come in all shapes and sizes, whether it’s trying a revered vintage, getting a fantastic bottle at a bargain price, or perhaps even simply getting a night on your own without the kids to enjoy the bottle in question.

Thanks to the UK’s leading online wine merchant Laithwaites you can now sort two out of three dreams straight away, just leaving you to just find the babysitter.

1961 Banner

1961 was (and is) a well lauded vintage in France – Could this Rioja keep up the pace?  JFK had just become the US President, the space-race was in its infancy and the Beatles were still trying to decide on a band name.  We’re talking seriously old-school.

Commercially viable volumes of very old bottlings such as this are increasingly unheard of, and it is only thanks to the extremely close relationship between Laithwaites head buyer Beth Willard and 5th generation winemaker Victor Manzanos, that such a rare gem has made it to the UK market.

Building a strong relationship both professional and personal, Beth was on hand to support Victor through the tough times following the sudden death of his father.  Maintaining almost daily contact as the London based Victor returned to Spain to take over the family business at just 19 years old, Beth was top of the list when Victor unearthed a fantastically old cache of bottles.

Beth takes up the story: “Until around 10 years ago Manzanos were a medium sized producer focused on the area around Azagra and Calahorra in Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja). They are now one of the biggest producers of wine in Rioja and Navarra, owning several bodegas and lots of vineyards throughout the whole region.”

“Their extended family has been a big holder of vineyards dating back to the late 1800’s and (because of the large expansion) only now has Victor had a chance to dig around to see what they actually hold. In Azagra, close to where the principle bodega is located, some of his relatives’ own tunnels are full of old bottles of wine.”

The great news for wine lovers is that these older wines are now being assessed with a view to offering further archive releases in the future.

Following the discovery, the hand-harvested 1961 (mechanical picking was still in its infancy then) was rebottled, recorked and relabelled as the original packaging wasn’t up to today’s commercial standards.  The wine, however, was perfect, spending 3 years in French oak and then having laid perfectly untouched since being bottled in the mid-1960’s.  I jumped at the chance to give it a try.

1961 Bottle

Manzanos 1961, Rioja, Spain, Tempranillo based blend, 12.5%, £40

Some older wines can disintegrate a bit when left to decant for several hours but I decanted, and wasn’t disappointed.  The wine evolved significantly over several hours.

Still retaining a glossy ruby colour, there were hints of garnet colouring to the core, and a light water-white rim.

Shortly after opening, the nose began with a Burgundian barnyard tone, but this developed to include figs, mushroom, roasted nuts and sweet tobacco.  Further developed fruit came in the form of herbaceous wild black cherry, a touch of red cherry, and a whole load of green bell pepper.

Pronounced in character with a real sense of density from the off, the wonderfully fragrant nose only got better as time went on, adding liquorice, bitter black chocolate and treacle/caramel.

The palate, as expected, was extremely evolved with the tertiary notes of roasted black coffee.  Chewy, dense, with an almost oily thick texture it was still rich and broth-like, but retained a refreshing zing of acidity to balance it out and keep it fresh.

Further black cherry fruit came to the fore over time, along with pepper spice, liquorice and a light vanilla relief.  Light chalky tannins were still evident.

The finish is in the 1-minute range, carried by the acidity, black cherry and caramel.  If I was being super-critical, it’s a shame that the finish didn’t last longer, but it was still more-ish enough to have me reaching for the next glass.

Quite austere on its own (but still medium plus in weight, so not heavy in any way) this would stand up very well to most well roasted meats.  Sadly I tried it on its own and can only imagine how it would have drunk alongside a beef joint.

Knowing that there will only be so many bottles available for a relatively short time, and at a very agreeable price, I have several more cellaring, so I’ll hopefully be able to find out in time.  I fully recommend that you grab yourself a bottle (you can purchase it here) whilst you still can to give it a try for yourself.

Drink to 2026.

Which Wine for a Wedding?

There’s roughly 260,000 weddings in the UK every year and so, despite how planning the perfect personalised wedding can sometimes feel unachievable, there’s a wealth of advice to help things go as smoothly as possible, whatever your requirements.

Compared to ‘focus’ items such as the venue, bridesmaid dresses or the music choices, wine can feel somewhat further down the planning scale.  It’s just Champagne for the toast and then a choice between red and white, right?

With an average of 96 guests invited to your big day, each with their own expectations, the food and drink deserves more than a passing thought.  According to research you’ll be spending roughly 20% of your budget on it, so it’s a key thing to get right.

In terms of drinks, as well as catering for those not drinking alcohol for whatever reason, a good rule of thumb per person is a welcome drink, half a bottle for the main meal, and finally something fizzy for the toast.  To ensure a happy crowd it’s probably better to over-cater than under-cater, and you can usually get a refund on any unused bottles.

Don’t feel that the toast and welcome drink needs to be budget-blowing expensive Champagne.  Cheaper doesn’t equal cheap, but if Prosecco or Cava don’t have the grandeur for your special occasion, my top tip is to go for Cremant.  Although you many not be familiar with it, it’s another French sparkling wine made in exactly the same way as Champagne, just not in the Champagne region.  You’ll save yourself a lot of money and most guests would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

For the main course, a good rule of thumb is to plan for the white vs. red on a 40/60 split.  To ensure you please as many palates as possible keep your choices simple and classic, and check that they compliment your food choices (e.g. avoid powerful reds with lighter meats such as chicken).  It also adds a nice touch if there is a story behind the wine too, such as serving one that you both tried whilst on holiday.

As with all aspects of your preparations, mention the word ‘wedding’ and prices immediately shoot upwards.  Sourcing the wine yourself rather than going with the limited options from your venue can mean a little extra detective work but could also save you money.  Don’t forget to check whether your venue applies a corkage fee.

Another good thing to check is that the venue is providing adequate serving staff for your expected number of guests.  You want people to focus on enjoying themselves rather than wondering when the next drink will turn up!  Putting a set number of bottles on each table may seem like you’re giving people the opportunity for a free-for-all, but research shows that people actually drink slower if they can go at their own pace, rather than downing a drink each time they see the lesser-spotted server. 

Donald Trump UK State Visit (June 19)

Whether you’re a fan or not, the recent state visit from US president Donald Trump was a talking point for many reasons, not least the hospitality he enjoyed throughout his stay.  Chief of these was the state banquet thrown in his honour by the Queen. 

Being 6 months in preparation it took palace staff 4 days just to lay the table!  By the end of the night over 1,020 glasses of wine had been served to 170 VIP’s (a thirst-slaking 6 glasses per guest on average).  Joining Donald and his wife Melania were the Queen, 15 other members of the royal family, Theresa May and numerous others with cultural, diplomatic or economic ties to the US.

The wine list for events such as this need to be fully considered lest they make a political faux pas by snubbing the efforts of the visiting nation.  Safe in the knowledge that Trump wouldn’t be partaking of any vinous delights (he’s famously teetotal) they were able to quite rightly focus on the talents of our own homegrown producers alongside some classic French examples. 

Proceedings began with a speech by the Queen using the 2014 vintage of her own sparkling wine Windsor Great Park to toast the President and “the continued friendship between our two nations” as well as “the health, prosperity and happiness of the people of the United States”.

A starter of steamed halibut with watercress mousse and asparagus spears in a chervil sauce kicked off the 3-course menu.  Just like the meticulous planning of the event all courses were served with military precision over exactly 1 hour and 15 minutes.

A notoriously brisk eater, guests are also forbidden to continue eating after the Queen has finished, so in no time at all it was straight on to the main; saddle of new season Windsor lamb with herb stuffing, spring vegetables and a Port sauce.  Both courses were paired with either a white wine from Burgundy (Loius Jadot’s Domaine Duc de Magenta 1er Cru Morgeot Chassagne-Montrachet 2014) or a red from Bordeaux (Château Lafite Rothschild 1990).

Out of interest, if you fancy recreating the menu at home the Burgundy will set you back about £75 a bottle.  The Bordeaux on the other hand will cost you about £1,400 – somewhere equivalent to the average UK monthly wage.  I think I’ll stick to the red thanks, waiter!

For dessert, a strawberry sable with lemon verbena cream was served up alongside another English sparkler, Hambledon Classic Cuvée Rosé.  It was then on to the Churchill’s 1985 Vintage Port to round off the night.

As the guests left, presumably lightly giddy from the circumstance, the food and more likely the 6 glasses of wine, spare a thought for the servers.  Even now they’re probably still hand-cleaning the more than 8,000 pieces of cutlery and crockery used on the night, before they safely tuck them away one-by-one until the next time.

Wine Down The Sink (Hole)

It’s always a sad day when you have to tip some wine down the sink.  Whether it’s because the wine has become tainted, isn’t to your taste, or has been left open for too long, you inevitably arrive at the same on-the-spot decision: “Could I feasibly use this in some sort of cooking”.  Pouring wine away feels such a waste.

One can only imagine then how famed Champagne producer Pol Roger felt back in February 1900.  The bumper harvest of 1899, the first of decent size and quality in over 5 years, was safe in their underground cellars.  A new century was dawning, and hope was high despite the prolonged period of heavy winter rains. 

But as the soils became more and more waterlogged, two cellar floors (and several adjoining buildings) collapsed into each other burying an estimated 500 casks and 1.5million bottles.  That’s a lot of wine down the drain.

 A rescue operation was prepared but, when poor weather continued and a neighbouring cellar also caved in, plans were abandoned as being too risky.  Having to make the best of the losses and soldier on Pol Roger built new and improved cellars, going from strength to strength across the century and are still remembered as being the go-to Champagne of ex-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The landslide could have become a mere footnote of Pol Roger’s history; indeed, much darker times were ahead with the destruction and looting stemming from two world wars but, like in the movies, some things don’t like to stay buried forever.

In 2018, the Pol Roger family were looking to build a new packing facility on the ground above the old cellars.  Construction began, moving away layers of earth with the sort of heavy machinery that is standard practice today, but unthinkable in 1900.

The diggers came across a small cavity beneath the surface which was then widened to allow access.  As well as much broken glass they were astonished to find a still intact bottle, then 6 more, and then a further 19 bottles. 

Incredibly the corks were still in place and the amount of wine in each of the 26 bottles was as packaged.  This meant that the liquid hadn’t been evaporating and the bottles remained airtight.  There was every chance that they were still drinkable!

The family were now very excited to push on, but in a cruel mirroring of the original rescue plan, two months of heavy rain once again saturated the soils and made further rescue attempts impossible.

Not being defeated though, Pol Roger have now announced that they will be continuing the rescue operation with a remotely controlled robot guided through small discovery tunnels to see what’s left to discover.  A far cry from the shovels originally used to try and dig the wine out.

How incredible would it be for them to raise a commercially viable number of bottles so that everyone could taste a 120-year-old Champagne?

Climate Change – A Silver Lining?

Climate change is a subject that’s been high on the public agenda over the last few months, especially if you’ve been trying to navigate around London during the protests.

According to NASA we’ve seen 17 of the warmest 18 years on record since 2001.  Following the unseasonably warm weather in April and May I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy at the prospect of a long hot summer, but in all seriousness, things are really heating up.

Alongside industries such as energy, fishing and even skiing, the production of agricultural crops, including the grapes destined to be turned in to wine, is poised to change dramatically, potentially to the point where we need to re-write the book.

Vines thrive the world-over where the climate meets their individual varietal characteristics.  A good example of the scale of change can be found in the revered French wine region of Burgundy. 

At a northerly latitude once deemed to be at the top end for successful grape production, the cool inland climate allows the thin-skinned Pinot Noir grape to perfectly ripen throughout the long warm summers without being scorched.  Even though the French don’t tend to varietally label their wines, it’s well known that the Pinot Noir grape is the heart and soul of the world-famous Burgundy.

What though if the climate gets too hot for this delicate grape?  Suddenly the entire profile of the wine would change as the vines were pulled up.  Hardier grapes from the warmer south of France would potentially need to be moved northwards as the temperature rises.  Could we be seeing Burgundy made from the spicier Grenache or Syrah varieties in the future?  It seems unbelievable, but that’s what some experts have said may happen in as little as 20 years time.

Alongside the warmer temperatures we are also seeing more and more evidence of volatile weather conditions hitting the vineyards.  The US has suffered devastating wildfires, sudden hailstorms have decimated the years-worth of work in minutes across France, Germany and Italy, whilst South Africa and Australia have suffered from severe droughts.

As something of a silver lining to the doom and gloom, we’re now seeing new wine regions appear in the land where it was once too cold to successfully produce well-ripened grapes.  The most obvious of these is our own home-grown wine industry which, thanks to rising temperatures, has turned from little more than a hobbyist activity to a serious world contender in roughly 25 years.

English wines have been served to royalty and heads of state, have taken off in the US, and go from strength to strength in wine competitions year after year.  If our world leaders continue to stall on addressing and tackling the seriousness of climate change, given that we now successfully compete with the quality of the Champagne region some 250 miles south of London, how long will it be before the south of England becomes the new Burgundy?

This article was originally published in the June 2019 edition of The Ocelot. For more of my articles, please click here.

The UK’s smallest commercial vineyard?

English sparkling wine is on the up – there’s no doubt about that. It’s been served at many prestigious events, ranging from the Oscars to the marriage of Kate and Wills.

Laying claim as one of the smallest vineyards in the UK, certainly one of the smallest commercial vineyards, was that of Laithwaites; the UK mail order wine empire founded by Tony Laithwaite. This year the company celebrates 50 years of bringing quality wines to you, direct from the cellar door.

Being a Windsor native Tony was keen to keep his local roots, but when the business had outgrown their humble railway arch premises, he was looking for suitable land to grow the business.

In a south facing site located just off the M4 in the Berkshire town of Theale, he found enough space for the office and, in the barren land in the back where the builders were storing their machinery and redundant materials, the space to plant a vineyard.

Tony in the Vines

In 1998, under the supervision of Champagne doyen Thierry Lesne, 704 Chardonnay vines were planted over a mere 0.14 of a hectare. In addition to being a commercial venture and marketing tool for customers, the vines doubled as both a staff labour of love (each vine was tagged with one of their names) and for training exercises. The first vintage was the 2002.

Trains Opposite

Situated directly across from road from Theale train station, the shelter and heat of the surrounding estate buildings were enablers to coaxing out the full maturity of the grapes. Even with the most meticulous of hand harvesting, grape picking took just a couple of hours.

With no vinification facilities on site Tony consulted his address book, roping in the late Mike Roberts of English Sparkling legends Ridgeview to produce the final cuvée. With the 2003 giving 756 bottles, the bumper crop of 2004 giving 1,274 and the much smaller 2011 giving 600 bottles, the average yearly yield for the site was around just 750 bottles per year.

When Laithwaites decided to relocate their HQ a few years later the landlord requested that the vineyard be removed at the same time, and 2015 saw the last grape harvest from the Theale site.

It was impossible though to consider that the vines should simply be ripped up. Uprooting any well-established plant is usually folly, but doing it 704 times would be unthinkable. Wouldn’t it?

Using industrial machinery, the removal of the vines commenced in March 2016 and, against the odds, they were successfully transported over 100 miles away to Devon where they now thrive once again.

Safe in Devon

Sadly, and such is the nature of progress, the Theale vineyard land is now the flat, grey and uninspiring dispatch area for online giant Amazon.

Now v2

The recently released, but increasingly rare 2012 is now available. The next couple of years will see the arrival of the ‘13, ’14 and ‘15. The last vintages from a vineyard that no longer exists. Rare wine indeed.

2012 Vintage

Tony Laithwaite’s book ‘Direct’, detailing the history behind the rise of his current empire, is now available via various book retailers including Amazon.