Red wine being poured in Paris. Photo: FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

An inspired sommelier loves two things at least as much as wine: people and stories

I’ve nothing against celebrated wines: enormous care and attention goes into their creation. Still, a little imagination is a heavenly thing.

The road to hell may be paved with good intentions or, more likely, a slew of spoiled ballot papers, but I’ve always maintained that the path to heaven is overlaid with good wine lists, floating enticingly towards that Great Restaurant in the Sky in which, if I manage not to insult too many people in this life, I hope to spend eternity.

My candidates for celestial beverage menus are not, generally, those Bible-thick tomes, bursting with famous names, that have nearly as many champagnes and Bordeaux as they have zeros at the end of their average bottle price. I’ve nothing against celebrated wines: a restaurant that’s trying to carve out a place at the top of the culinary totem pole must offer them, and enormous care and attention goes into their creation. Still, a little imagination is a heavenly thing, and an inspired sommelier loves two things at least as much as wine: people and stories. Without the former, it’s all just fermented grape juice. And a good story, like fine crystal, cups and holds the liquid, readying the mind for the treat the mouth is preparing to deliver.

At Enoteca, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Hotel Arts Barcelona, I admired a page-long list of Priorats, the powerful red wines from a hill south-west of the city so steep that many vines are tended by donkey. It wasn’t the only page of Priorats: Florian David, the young head sommelier, says that some diners wish to drink only Catalan wines, and Priorat is the region’s grand cru (it is the sole Spanish wine region to hold the top-rung DOC status, other than Rioja).

There are many great Priorats and at Enoteca you can range from a €65 Terroir al Limit Torroja 2012, made by a Bavarian called Dominik Huber, to Daphne Glorian’s renowned Clos Erasmus 2004, which will set you back €1,400. You may, if your group is thirsty or numerous, choose to compare the two, contrasting the Torroja’s Garnatxa-Cariñena blend with the Erasmus’s Garnatxa, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, the last two being international grapes that some consider less appropriate to Priorat’s peculiar slate soils. Combinations of wines, like wine matched with food, enliven as well as educate the palate: this is sensation-seeking of the strictly legal sort – boundary-testing that tastes a hell of a lot better than anything we try as teenagers.

Boldly, we ventured into the wilder reaches of the wine list. David paired tuna escabeche with Thierry Germain’s sharply aromatic L’Insolite Saumur, contrasting it with another, softer Loire Chenin, a Vouvray by Philippe Foreau, whose wines are so good partly, David says, “because he’s crazy about food”.

We lauded the underrated wonders of white wine (“Sometimes I only have one red on a whole tasting menu!”) and mourned the reluctance of some diners to move beyond the safe parameters of familiar wines, which is like choosing to live in prison because it’s dangerous outside: technically true, but a tragically dull existence. I learned about the trio of French winemakers creating great Garnatxa-based Priorat as the Trio Infernal; about Alain Senderens, the chef who returned his three Michelin stars in 2005 in favour of a more relaxed, informal style of dining, then won them back on his own terms; and about where to drink and eat in Russia, Mrs David’s native land and a country I love, despite the paucity of vineyards.

Conveyed by a series of stunning wines, we ranged the world from France and Italy to New Zealand and Babylon (well, the Pyrenees, but the legendary Loire winemaker Didier Dagueneau’s southern vineyard is called Les Jardins de Babylone). Eventually, sated with stories and flavours, I concluded that heaven was in fact right here at this table, meaning that in theory, I could insult whomever I please. But I felt far too content to bother.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.