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

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496