Archive for July, 2017

How wine became a luxury?

July 8th, 2017

arnaud de pontac chateau haut brion wine

By Joseph Temple

Ever since 1982 when Robert Parker enthusiastically described that year’s Bordeaux vintage as one that is “destined to be some of the greatest wines produced in this century,” the concept of wine as a lucrative financial investment continues to grow. Twenty-five years after Parker’s prophecy, one case of Château Latour has increased in value by a staggering 8,000 percent, making wine, according to CNBC, the single best collectible investment—even better than classic cars! Putting another exclamation mark on that statement, The Telegraph recently published a list of ten bottles that have given buyers a ROI of 150% and more in just five years.

With such a powerful bull market occurring before our very eyes, it makes you wonder how some wines went from mere alcoholic beverages to highly sought-after items of luxury?

To answer that question, you need to go back centuries, long before Robert Parker and even the 1855 Bordeaux classification. During the reign of Elizabeth I in the late 16th century, it’s safe to say that the English loved their wine, consuming approximately 40 million bottles annually at a time when the entire population was a little over 6 million. However, their interest had nothing to do with terroir or tannins; what attracted Britain was the idea of wine as an antiseptic. With contaminated water being a fact of life back then, many thought that the best way to relieve sickness was through the consumption of wine.

And back then, the wines of Bordeaux didn’t arrive in bottles with labels listing the sub-region or vintage. Simply labeled ‘Claret,’ there was no mention of the estate, making the casks that arrived on English soil as generic as possible. According to some historians, what most people drank was a light red made from white and red grapes (think Rosé) that arrived in either the late fall or early winter and needed to be finished by late summer at the latest. After that, the wine quickly turned into vinegar.

This all changed forever with the arrival of Arnaud de Pontac. Purchasing Haut-Brion in 1649, the Premier President of the Parlement of Bordeaux embarked on a revolutionary approach to both winemaking and wine marketing. Realizing that the most important market by the mid-17th century for Bordeaux was in London, he actively sought out the wealthy with an entirely new way of looking at wine. Dating back to when Edward II ordered the equivalent of a million bottles to celebrate his marriage to Isabella of France, the idea of wine as a luxury item was something that quickly caught on, especially during the Restoration.

What separated Pontac and Haut-Brion from the competition were concepts that are still in place to this day. By limiting the crop, rejecting unripe grapes, and allowing for a slow fermentation process, his focus of quality over quantity made his product superior in the eyes of the English elite. According to one historian, “Pontac carefully produced and named a wine that came from a small, circumscribed area of land in order to enhance its value on the palates and in the minds of English customers.” This can be seen in the cellar book of King Charles II who purchased 169 bottles of “Hobriono” in 1660. All of a sudden, the brand became more important than the wine.

Another advantage was that Pontac sent his son across the Channel to open up “Pontack’s Head”– a popular tavern where customers could buy Haut Brion directly. Needless to say, the other Bordeaux winemakers took note of Pontac’s brilliant marketing strategy and quickly followed suit. By the time of Queen Anne, luxury claret had arrived in a big way amongst royalty and wealthy English landowners. The whole idea of “the Château” took off as impressive buildings were built throughout the region in order to impress potential clients. Prestige and quality become the guiding principles for the Bordelais, etched in stone with the now famous 1855 classification.

So the next time you wonder why certain bottles are fetching record sums, you can thank Arnaud de Pontac and Château Haut-Brion for creating the first brand name wine of the modern era.


Clarke, Oz. The History of Wine in 100 Bottles: From Bacchus to Bordeaux and Beyond. London: Pavilion Books, 2015.
Estreicher, Stefan K. Wine: From Neolithic Times to the 21st Century. New York: Algora Publishing, 2006.
Ludington, Charles. The Politics of Wine in Britain: A New Cultural History. New York: Springer Publishing, 2016.
Sander, Merton. Wine: A Scientific Exploration. Boca Raton: CRC Publishing, 2003.

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Ask Sid: Russian Wines?

July 5th, 2017
Ask your question here

russian wines which one to buy

Question: I am travelling to St. Petersburg on a cruise for a holiday this summer. What Russian wines to you recommend we should look for to taste while dining there?

Answer: Very topical question for me as I was just there this year too. Visited the wine cellars in the beautiful Constantine Palace in Strelna with their vast collection. Also had a wine tasting there with some tired white blends from 2012 of 50% Riesling & 50% Chardonnay, West Hill Blend limited production 2012 reds from the Black Sea coast of 50% Merlot & 50% Cabernet Sauvignon with some sweetish smokey spicy notes, and older Tokay from Hungary. The best Russian wines we found in restaurants in St. Petersburg were all from the Krasnodar southernmost region bordering the Ukraine to the west at about 45 degrees latitude. My favourite was Temelion Brut sparkling by Lefkadia a blend of chardonnay & pinot noir displaying drier refreshing citrus lemon flavours. Also served some simpler 2016 varietal Sauvignon Blanc & 2015 oaky Chardonnay. A unique almost Syrah-like red from the native vitis vinifera grape Saperavi 2015 called Fanagoria Vintage is worth investigating. Believe there are some of this variety also being grown in the Finger Lakes of New York state. This acidic grape variety native to Georgia though with thin skins produced an intense deep red colour wine with some interest. Check it out.

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River Cafe in London Still Outstanding Food

July 3rd, 2017

River Cafe restaurant review

Delighted to return to the River Cafe ( in London for an amazing food long lunch on June 25th. This iconic restaurant opened in an airy riverside location at Thames Wharf on Rainville Road in Hammersmith (tube stop) designed by Richard Rogers in 1987. It has been going strong ever since though lately has received comments that the prices tend to be a bit expensively scary. Nonetheless it is a special treat to dine there because the quality of the cuisine remains outstanding. Corkage is also high as I took my excellent elegant aged bottle of 1996 Barolo Bricco Boschis from Cavallotto and was charged the usual 40£ corkage. However that is the price of the cheapest Dolcetto on their all Italian wine list so an appropriate charge I guess if you were going to order wine anyhow.  At least the wine was decanted and served in some appropriate large bowl glasses to show to best advantage. The menu as attached is divided into 3 normal sections of Antipasti, Primi, and Secondi. The pasta dishes are always unbelievably delicious with both Taglierini – with slow-cooked peas, wild fennel, prosciutto & pecorini plus Ravioli di Boraggine – hand-made pasta with sheep’s milk ricotta, borage, flowering thyme and nutmeg butter really sublime! Mains of Triglia – chargrilled whole Red Mullet with bay salmoriglio, roasted yellow peppers, capers, & Castelluccio lentils plus Piccione al forno – roasted spatchcocked pigeon marinated in Valpolicella & thyme with pancetta, broad beans & rainbow chard also shone so brightly!

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Pleased to see the founder icon Ruth Rogers in the restaurant on a Sunday and had the opportunity to speak with her. We reminiscenced about the early days of her wonderful restaurant and your scribe congratulated her for carrying on at such a high culinary level since the passing of her co-founder partner Rose Gray on February 28, 2010. Ruth mentioned she had brought in Charles and other important members of her long serving personal team to carry on. They are currently recruiting full-time chefs, sommeliers and other service staff at the restaurant. Highly recommend it to young chefs or sommeliers looking for a great learning experience exposure on the finest in Italian food and wines. We talked about how we enjoyed using her 6 successful cook books from the first one Italian Country Cookbook through Italian Easy, River Cafe One, Two, and Green. The big news she announced is that Ruth is excited about her newest cook book expected to be released in October 2017. Watch for it. Sure to be another gem.

River Cafe London UK menu
Click to enlarge

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How to say “Champagne” without saying Champagne

July 1st, 2017

american champagne

By Joseph Temple

It’s no secret that the French view their wine as sacrosanct. From Bordeaux and Burgundy to Champagne and Côtes du Rhone, the soil that has given us some of the finest vintages is deeply embedded in the culture of every citizen across the Fifth Republic. And when it comes to bubbly, the vineyards of Champagne are held in the highest regards, having survived numerous invasions and wars over the past two millennia.

So when someone erroneously asks for or praises a glass of “American Champagne” or “Italian Champagne,” you can see why both French winemakers and citizens would get upset. Fighting back against this mislabeling, the government of France has applied diplomatic pressure for centuries to stop the use of this word unless the sparkling wine is specifically made in the region of Champagne. As one famous example illustrates, the French delegation led by Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau successfully protected the Champenois during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference with Article 275, which stated that “the importation, exportation, manufacture, distribution, sale or offering for sale of products or articles bearing regional appellations inconsistent with such law or order shall be prohibited.”

But nearly a century later, the Champagne label is still being misused and abused. To understand the loopholes and clever tricks that have been employed for hundreds of years, have a look below to see how you can say “Champagne” without saying Champagne.

american champagne

Although the United States signed the Treaty of Versailles, the Senate never ratified it, making America null and void from Article 275, which has led to many “American Champagnes” over the years. However, in 2005 the U.S. And European Union finally agreed that labels like this one would no longer be tolerated—with an important catch. If any winemaker used this term before March 10th, 2006, they would be grandfathered in, a decision that caused Korbel Natural Special Inaugural Cuvée California Champagne to be served at Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.

new york champagne

In addition to false labelling, the Pleasant Valley Wine Company took it one step further in the nineteenth century when they lobbied the federal government to change the name of their hamlet. So when people saw Great Western Champagne as being from Rheims, it’s because the wine was actually made in Rheims—New York!

3. Deny its Champagne … over and over again.

If you’re a WWII veteran who fought during the Italian campaign, then you probably developed a taste for a sweet sparkling wine known as Asti Spumante. Unfortunately, its reputation has taken a nosedive in the years following the Second World War, with many producers dropping the name Spumante due to its negative perception for being a cheap wine. But here’s a great way to piggyback off of Champagne using a rhetorical device: a 1977 commercial where the viewer is told that it’s not Champagne—it’s Asti Spumante. Rinse and repeat.

HONORABLE MENTION: Champagne, Champale. Hey, they both rhyme.

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