Notes from the vineyard: flowering

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A row of vines, proudly bearing their second budburst at Nyetimber

This month Nyetimber Winemaker Brad Greatrix discusses the flowering process, considering the future of the vineyard’s early buds – and potential threats

For those that have been following this series, you’ll recall I mentioned that two critical periods during the growing season are budburst and flowering. Towards the end of June is when the flowering process will take place in English vineyards – or at least that’s when it normally occurs. In my April post I looked at budburst and the hazards of that time of year. With an early budburst comes the risk of frost, and unfortunately both of those things unfolded this year.

Consequently, affected vines (about half of our production) have had their primary buds damaged by the cold, and we are now dependent on secondary buds that will take their place. There is a yield consequence to that, as secondary buds are always less fruitful, but also it delays the development of this year’s shoots. We’ve gone from an “early” budburst year to a “late” one, meaning we are more dependent on warm summer weather to push on ripening, and flowering is more likely to occur in July.

Fortunately, frost doesn’t necessarily impact on quality, but it’s hard as a grower not to get a little emotional over the lost crop. (If interested in reading further about frost, there have been some excellent articles recently, including Will Lyons on this blog, and Victoria Moore in The Telegraph).

Flowering in the vineyard at Nyetimber

Next on the calendar for the 2017 growing season is flowering. As the young shoots are developing during the season, they start out with what look like tiny clusters of grapes. They aren’t, however, quite grapes yet – around the end of June (or early July this year), a tiny white flower unfurls at each position where a grape will eventually be. If that flower is successfully pollinated it will become a berry, so better pollination means more fruitful bunches.

Grape vines are self-pollinating, meaning that they don’t require insects for the process, but that makes them even more dependent on weather for success. Too much wind, or particularly rain, and the pollen can’t reach its target. The consequences are loose, open bunches with very few grapes, and low yields for the season. Or, if the weather is cold during flowering it can extend the process out over two to three weeks, meaning that within a bunch there could be grapes with 10 to 14 days’ difference in development time, which makes picking decisions difficult further down the line.

In 2016, we had the double effect of a spring frost and wet weather during flowering, meaning there were fewer bunches per vine (on secondary buds) and fewer bunches per grape due to inefficient pollination. Therefore the yield from last year was low, but the wines of 2016 turned out to be great in quality because we had a hot and dry summer, particularly from August onwards and we achieved full, even ripeness. Now in 2017 we’ve started off with the same frost, but let’s hope for more fruitful weather in June and July.

Nyetimber are running a pop-up garden bar in Covent Garden until June 28th; find out more here.

Category: English Wine

Defining delicious

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As Victoria Moore publishes her new book, The Wine Dine Dictionary, she talks to Sophie Thorpe about the horror of pairing, and the need for a new approach to food and drink

“I spend half my day thinking about what I’m going to have for dinner, don’t you?” Victoria Moore, the decidedly petite author of The Wine Dine Dictionary peers at me curiously, almost in disbelief that there could be another way to pass one’s time.

Over the past decade, Moore has – through her wine column in The Telegraph, not to mention her first book How to Drink – been making wine and wine writing accessible. Her new book, a rabbit hole that I’ve been regularly disappearing into, tackles food and wine pairing, or as she terms it “happy eating and drinking”.

“I don’t like it when people have rules around drinking,” Moore tells me. “The area of food and wine matching is fraught with the idea that there are rules, and this word ‘pairing’ comes up, which is one of the most dispiriting words ever. It fills me with horror.”

While I’m of a similar breed to Ms Moore, living from one meal (and bottle) to the next, the search for the “perfect pairing” can seem exhausting. It is often made to seem elusive, an exclusive and un-masterable art, reserved only for those with the finest noses and most skilled palates.

“We’re quite happy to talk about how different foods and different flavours go with each other – as long as they’re on the plate,” Victoria says. And it’s true, perhaps the rise of the celebrity chef, the swathes of cooking shows and rise of the small plate has democratised food – but wine is still waiting in the wings. Kept off screen, the masked bottles are robed in a false mystery.

Victoria’s easily navigable Dictionary deciphers the code, gently and humanly providing inspiration for ingredients and bottles. As one might expect, the first half translates over 400 food entries into bibulous options; the second half transposing grapes and a few select appellations onto edible counterparts.

“In a way the most difficult thing was trying to organise the back of the book [the wine-dine section], because most classical wines are blends. At what point does something pivot its way out of a grape variety and into its own wine?” As a result the guide isn’t limited to grapes or appellations, but combines both, for example, with Bordeaux listed under Cabernet Sauvignon, but Pomerol and St Emilion sneaking in their own entries.

It’s a moreish read, littered with recipes and titbits from winemakers around the world – suggestions of what they enjoy most with their wine, and sometimes how to make it. There are plenty of familiar names – from Andrea Mullineux and Mario Fontana to Randall Grahm and Alvaro Palacios, picked because Victoria enjoys their wines, but also to guide readers to good bottles. It’s reassuring to see the obvious not avoided for the sake of intrigue (such as smoked salmon with English sparkling wine, as suggested by Brad Greatrix), although there is plenty of excitement within the book’s pages too.

Moore has been planning the book for years: “I just had to write it in the end to stop it banging around in my head.” It could have been a never-ending project, but at 120,000 words (almost double the original brief), and when the deadline came (the second time), The Wine Dine Dictionary was declared done.

Sitting on my desk, this is a book that I couldn’t help dipping into, drifting from entry to entry, drooling and hungry. But it walks a wonderful line, appealing to both expert and enthusiast with its tone, the winemakers’ notes providing a face for the bottles and flavours – a human note that helps, perhaps, to peel back a layer of wine’s mystery.

The Wine Dine Dictionary is published by Granta Books, priced at £20, and available in our shop at 63 Pall Mall. Join us on Wednesday 7th June, from 5 to 7pm, when Victoria will be in-store signing copies.

Category: Food & Wine,Miscellaneous

Keeping shop

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As we swing open a new set of doors on Pall Mall, our Chairman Simon Berry peers around the corner, pondering the evolution of No.3 St James’s Street

When I first worked in the shop at No.3 St James’s, it wasn’t really a shop. The only bottles on display were ancient and empty. “Why would anyone want to look at a label?” my father would exclaim whenever it was suggested that we should put bottles on shelves. “Wine should be kept in a cellar – that’s the only way to make sure that it’s going to be good to drink.” I remember a bottle of Beaujolais being placed on the table by an enthusiastic Shop Manager in the late 1970s, in a misguided attempt to keep up with the fashion for Beaujolais Nouveau. John Rudd, at the time Managing Director, walked through the shop on his arrival that morning, bowler hat still firmly on his head. As he passed the table he glanced at the bottle. He hardly broke stride, but a very audible “over my dead body” was registered by everyone in the shop. The bottle of Beaujolais disappeared very quickly.

My father, to his dying day, knew that room as “the Office”. When he was growing up, the partners had their desks there, towards the front. The clerks sat at the back, either side of the tall Dickensian desk. Customers, or more likely their butlers, would push open the door, probably failing to make the doorbell ring (it was usually broken) and – unless personally known by the partners – run the gauntlet to the far end and the comparative welcome of an upraised eyebrow from one of the shop clerks.

In my day – 40 years ago – the directors had moved to other parts of the building. Customers would come in, be greeted by one of four or five shop assistants, sit down at the table and be handed a price list. It was more of a consulting room than anything else. Mostly the order would be charged to an account, and booked for delivery. Sometimes the customer wanted to take the wine with them, which required a lengthy trip down to the cellars to assemble the order. Even more occasionally the customer wanted to pay with cash or by cheque, which involved a Victorian wooden till, incorporating three-part paper dockets inter-lined with carbon paper which frequently jammed and tore. At Christmas, this was not the most efficient way to run a shop. Queues would build up as shoppers tried to lay in provisions. Festive joy tended to be in short supply.

One busy day, when the drawer of the till must have held many thousands of pounds in folding money, all of the salesmen were in the cellars at once, putting together orders for impatient, time-strapped customers. When the salesmen emerged they discovered that somebody had walked into the shop, by-passed the queue, and walked out with the till tucked under their arm. From that moment, it was clear that things needed to change.

But not too quickly, of course. The ancient wooden shutters were still ceremoniously fixed to the outside of the windows at closing time every evening and inside the windows the slightly less ancient iron shutters never came down. I can still see the shop on the morning we decided to remove them: the undulating floorboards bathed in sunlight; the salesmen, accustomed to Stygian gloom, balefully blinking in the unaccustomed brightness. It was as if we had stripped them of their clothes and they were standing naked for every passer-by in St James’s to witness. The transformation had begun.

Bottles – even bona fide window displays – started to appear. We stayed open until 6, and it was acknowledged that members of the general public were allowed (even encouraged!) to come through the doors and buy a single bottle. At Christmas we would put up a tree – our Dickensian heritage had been very much modelled on Scrooge & Marley, it seemed – and even fill one of the side offices with stocks of the lines most in demand. Good Ordinary Claret, our own Champagne, Cutty Sark and The King’s Ginger liqueur were all at hand, so interminable trips down to the cellar were instantly reduced. We even opened on Saturday mornings, much to the annoyance of our friends across the road at Justerini & Brooks, who feared that they would have to follow suit and suffer irredeemable damage to their shooting timetables…

An etching of No.3 as it was in 1925 by Sir Muirhead Bone; the original hangs in our cellars today.

An etching of No.3 as it was in 1925 by Sir Muirhead Bone; the original hangs in our cellars today.

In 1994 we opened our first Heathrow shop, and overnight had to become 20th century retailers. Many of the techniques we learnt in Terminal 3 we brought back to St James’s Street. We even began to display bottles on shelves – not in the “Office”, but in the adjacent rooms – where the switchboard had been housed when I first came to St James’s, and the original stock office. Quite soon we also expanded next door to No.2. Originally this had been the St James’s Buttery – a greasy spoon café which seemed out of place in modern St James’s Street, but which had served the best fried egg and bacon sandwiches for miles. When it closed, we moved in, originally thinking we might have a wine bar there. When it became clear that it was too small, the space languished as a storage room – the place where our old computers went to die: possibly the worst recorded use of space on an important London shopping street. Hugh Johnson’s wine accessory shop moved in for a few months, and then we fitted the room out with shelves more suitable for wine rather than glasses and decanters.

My father wasn’t impressed. The original shop was even more firmly “the Office” in his mind: the outlying rooms were always referred to as the “supermarkets” or, more politely, the “bottle shops”. And although sales increased as a result of this re-design, I did have a certain amount of sympathy for him. English Heritage would never have allowed us to create the St James’s Street version of Augustus Barnett, even if we had intended to, and it was still important that we shouldn’t destroy the uniqueness that 300 years of resistance to change had created. Because No.3 St James’s Street is unique.

J.K. Rowling came into the shop a few years ago and I was astounded to learn that she had never been there before – I had always assumed that Ollivanders Wand Shop was modelled on us. To many wine-lovers it is a place of pilgrimage and, even if their wine is ordered online and delivered from our Basingstoke warehouses, there is a touch of magic dust as if every consignment goes via St James’s. So we allowed the outlying rooms to be fitted out as more obviously recognisable wine shops so long as the unique character of the “office” was preserved.

Two years ago, the “bottle shop” at No.2 was converted to the entrance lobby of our new office development and I agreed that we could add a counter and more bottles on shelves to No.3. Sacrilege, my father would have said had he not died five years before, but I knew that this was a temporary measure. One of the main reasons we had never produced a real wine shop was lack of space – none of the outlying rooms were big enough, or connected to each other. We had, however, identified the perfect site: the ground floor of our two buildings around the corner on Pall Mall. All sorts of hurdles had to be got over, ranging from planning permission to the special and peculiar world of building contractors, but eventually we would have access to 1,000 square feet of excellent retail space – a mere 10 seconds around the corner. And this summer, that dream becomes a reality.

Others will describe what we have done to turn that space into (we hope) the greatest wine shop in London. It’s not just about design, of course, or location – the selection of wines is crucial, and most important of all is the exceptional team we have assembled to staff the shop and assist customers.

Even better is the news that No.3 St James’s Street will revert to its true function: the best place to come and talk about wine in the world. A special wood-panelled room, with uneven floorboards, and dusty artefacts that have assembled there throughout the centuries. And, most importantly, brilliant people who will steer you towards a delicious bottle of wine for any occasion without having to look at a label. For that, there’s another wonderful wine shop next door.

This article features in the Spring/Summer issue of No.3. Find out more about our shop at 63 Pall Mall here.

Category: Miscellaneous

The sheer pleasure of Sherry

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A road winds through the countryside around Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Photograph: Jason Lowe

As Lustau’s shipment of its three en rama Sherries hits our shores, Olivia Bodle makes a short pilgrimage north of the river, to Bar Pepito to sample the goods

In the vaulted cellars of Bodegas Lustau, just two barrels from each solera are selected earlier in the spring when the flor in the casks was at optimal thickness. It is these barrels that are then bottled to produce the annual release of its en rama Sherries. The wines are so special because they are bottled straight from the cask without fining, filtering or stabilising: intense and pure in flavour, they are of the highest quality and are not meant for keeping more than a few months, so drink up and savour their short appearance on shelves and wine lists.

Sherry has been cool for a few years now, no longer condemned as granny-juice, it has been picked up by the hipster crowd and there are multitudes of bars and restaurants with a real focus on fortifieds. Nothing could be more on trend than the new Sherry-come-disco bar Sack which has just opened in Shoreditch. Lustau’s tongue in cheek nod to their Instagram generation consumers is the large “#nofilter” printed boldly on the back label of the en rama bottles. I’m not sure if the Spanish classic, Rebujito (Fino mixed with 7Up and ice) will kick off in London this summer though.

Bar Pepito is an adorable enclave in Varnisher’s Yard, which has been put together with great authenticity; Esparto grass mats, used for drying Pedro Ximénez grapes, adorn the walls and the Spanish staff are delightfully knowledgeable. In such an intimate venue you sit elbow to elbow with your neighbours, perched on stools with barrel ends serving as high tables. A single chef prepares all the dishes in a space so small I feel it cannot be described as a kitchen, it is about the size of the desks you take school exams on. The menu is similarly petite, each dish paired with a Sherry recommendation. We started with the Lustau En Rama, Fino from Puerto de Santa María which was bright and refreshing with a delicate yeastiness. The saline quality of the wine with a bowl of briney, golf-ball sized olives and shiny, salty almonds was wickedly moreish on a muggy evening.

We followed on with the house recommendation of the cured goats’ cheese and pan con tomate with a bottle of the Amontillado, Los Arcos from Lustau. The amber coloured, softly nutty wine was wonderful with the tongue-tingling raw garlic and smoked paprika in the tomatoes. It seemed compulsory by this point to order another bottle of Sherry, so to go with our Ibérico jamón and loin we chose the Oloroso from the Almacenista Pata de Gallina. This wine is selected from a solera of only 38 casks and is surprisingly serious; it is rich and fruity with a hint of sweetness on the finish.

Of course, after three bottles my colleague and I were waxing lyrical about the versatility of Sherry, our new-found love for Bar Pepito and the land north of the river, but Bar Pepito speaks for itself. On a stuffy Tuesday evening, every stool in the room was taken and people were squeezing under umbrellas in the courtyard, determined not to let the frequent showers spoil their Sherry.

Seize the en rama season and start experimenting with your Sherry options – with your first stop Bar Pepito, for a low-key evening of tapas and a copita (or two).

Browse Lustau’s 2017 en rama releases on bbr.com

Category: Port and Sherry