A brief history of Andalusia (and the wine that is made there)

10 November 2014 by in Sherry, Wine and spirits

Most of you will know that sherry is made in the famous ‘sherry triangle’ in Spain, in the region of Andalusia. However, you may not know about the history of the region and the events which led to the production of sherry in such a concentrated area.

Of course, the reason sherry is produced there and nowhere else is due to the climate, the soil and the type of grape that produces the popular wine. Yet sherry is intrinsically Spanish and the perfect accompaniment to tapas. But what has happened in this region that gives sherry its character?


Firstly, Andalusia has been colonized by many different cultures, for over 6000 years, including the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Jews and Muslims, bringing not only cultural but culinary diversity to this region. Its close proximity to the coast meant that major cities such as Cordoba and Granada were hotspots for migrant traders over the centuries.

Andalusia, known for a time as Al-Andalus due to the Islamic influence, was a key setting for the religious Reformation across Europe, and the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Such change has had an irreversible effect on the demographic of the area as well as the architecture, literature and artwork.

The stoic philosopher Sencea is said to have hailed from this region; clearly it has produced more than just the sherry grape.

However, it is still famous for its popular wine, which is thought to have been introduced to Britain around the time of the Spanish Armada in the 1500s. With such a long and colourful history, this region has produced one of the most distinctive wines in the world.

If you’d like to know more about the history of sherry, Julian Jeffs’ Sherry (sixth edition) will be published on 20th November and copies can be preordered now. A great read, it will make a gratefully received gift for those who are interested in history, wine – or indeed books!
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The Infinite Ideas interview with Nicholas Faith

5 November 2014 by in Wine and spirits

It’s Bonfire Night and we thought the perfect (grown up) accompaniment to this evening would be a lovely glass of cognac. Nicholas Faith is the author of Cognac and Nicholas Faith’s guide to cognac and recently he dropped in to discuss this renowned brandy. Here is what he had to say.

Why isn’t cognac produced anywhere else?
Because the Cognac region in Western France provides a unique blend of chalky soil and a temperate climate.

What have been the biggest changes in the production of cognac over the years? Why do you think this is?
In fact there’s only been one major change since the late sixteenth century, when the Dutch taught the locals to distil their rather acidic white wine. That’s an increase in the size of the stills in which the wine from which the brandy is made is distilled. The increase has little effect on the quality of the spirit.

In Cognac you’ve written a lot about the history of the drink, but what do you think lies ahead in the world of cognac; does it face challenges or do you predict a boom?
cognacI’m optimistic. Despite a short-term downturn because of a fall in the Chinese thirst for Cognac the steady increase in the prosperity of so many countries means that more and more people can enjoy this delicious luxury.

Do you think global warming has affected the production of cognac?
It merely enables the locals to harvest their grapes a few weeks earlier.

Do you think that technology has generally been a good thing or a bad thing for cognac?
Good to a limited extent in that it enables the producers to control the process more accurately. Otherwise there has been no effect.

Cognac is often regarded as an old-fashioned tipple; how would you convince today’s drinkers that it’s worth trying?
The big problem. First encourage them to try the cheaper cognacs as the basis for long drinks with soda, sparkling water or – in winter – with a ginger drink. As for the best ‘sipping’ cognacs tell them to forget balloon glasses and simply sniff and sip them in a wine glass.

Cognac-tasting is quite a specialised skill. How did you get into it – were you a natural or did you have to learn?
You might say that I fell into a cognac still by accident. A friend had moved from Bordeaux to Cognac and at the end of a well-liquidised evening I was converted and wanted to know more about this magic liquid. I then listened to the blenders which enlarged my appreciation of its complexities, especially those of the finest cognacs.

Can you tell us about the worst cognac drink you have ever tasted?
I’ve tasted lots of horrid spirits but never a truly awful cognac, the French authorities are too effective to allow such a drink through.

Who is the greatest character you have met during your long career as a cognac expert? Can you tell us about him/her?
André Hériard-Dubreuil who transformed Rémy Martin into a world-wide success. A brilliant, rugged visionary who saw no limit to his firm’s world-wide potential.

Other than cognac what is your favourite drink – not necessarily alcoholic – and why?
Mature claret, produced in the Médoc, the other side of the Gironde estuary – as complex and satisfying as cognac.

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10 things you might not know about sherry

3 November 2014 by in Sherry, Wine and spirits

Julian Jeffs’ book Sherry (6th edition), is due to be published on 20th November. We’re very excited and to get you in the mood, here are some facts about the drink that you might not know. Before you pour the last drop in your Christmas trifle, perhaps this year you’ll discover how exciting sherry is as a drink.

  1. Firstly, let’s get our bearings. For such a famous wine, sherry is only produced in the ‘sherry triangle’ in Spain, consisting of three towns, Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda.
  2. Sherry has been connected to Britain for over 600 years. This is partly due to Catholics being exiled to Spain and setting up as wine traders who sent sherry back to Britain. Essentially, it has been part of British culture for over half a millennia.
  3. This wine is growing in popularity, particularly in the United States, where there is a trend for sherry cocktails in restaurants and even sherry tasting clubs have emerged, such is the appreciation for the wine.
  4. Rather than stick it in your trifle, how about having a glass of chilled fino with your tapas. Sherry is widely regarded as the perfect accompaniment to the Spanish meal.
  5. The wine was considered to be Shakespeare’s favourite drink. Perhaps a swig of amontillado will have you composing sonnets too.
  6. Legally, only sherry produced within the ‘triangle’ is allowed to be called ‘sherry’. However, it is produced in America and must be sold with the label, ‘California Sherry’ or ‘American Sherry’ so that consumers know the difference. This is due to a Spanish law that was created in 1933 to protect the term ‘sherry’ and make it exclusively Spanish.
  7. Christopher Columbus is thought to have stocked up his ship with many barrels of sherry before departing Spain for the New World, which, if true, makes it the first wine to make it to America. No wonder there is a growing popularity for it.
  8. Given that sherry is not as popular as other wines, it is often cheaper to buy and therefore you’re likely to get your hands on a quality bottle for a relatively low price.
  9. It can be split into different categories depending on their colour, oxidisation and blending.
  10. Rather than putting the cork back in the bottle and leaving it on your shelf for another year, sherry should ideally be treated like a white wine and consumed within a few days of opening, otherwise the wine becomes too exposed to oxygen and loses its flavour.

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The Infinite Ideas interview with Richard Mayson

29 October 2014 by in Wine and spirits

richardMaysonPort expert Richard Mayson has taken a few minutes out of his busy schedule to sit down with us and chat about his favourite drink. Here are his thoughts on port-related subjects from the tricks of tasting to the effects of global warming on the wine trade.


Why isn’t port wine produced anywhere else?
It is all a matter of terroir. Nowhere in the world apart from the Douro valley has the same combination of climate, geology/soil types and heritage. With centuries of accumulated history behind it Port is very much the product of a culture that has developed among 34,000 growers and the shippers (many of them well-known) who bring the wines to the market.

PortWhat have been the biggest changes in the production of port in recent years?
The main change that has taken place in recent years is the improvement in wine making technology. Until as recently as the 1970s a large amount of port was produced in time-honoured fashion that would be familiar to someone plucked out of the eighteenth century! Better knowledge of grape varieties, matching them to vineyard sites, picking at optimum ripeness and better control of extraction and fermentation have all made port into a much better product. Added to which, with their purchase of vineyards many of the larger shippers are now able to control the whole production process from the grape to the bottle. It is no wonder that the quality of port is better now than it has ever been.

In Port and the Douro you’ve written a lot about the history of the drink, but what do you think lies ahead in the world of port; does it face challenges or do you predict a boom?
Port has always faced challenges and always will. The Douro region is a costly place to grow grapes and wine is subject to the vagaries of fashion. I don’t predict a boom but I do predict a healthy future for those producers making less but better and focusing on quality-conscious markets. There is a real and developing interest worldwide in wines that embody the character of their grower and region. In the Douro small growers and large shippers have been facing up to this and there is much more individuality in their wines.

Do you think global warming has affected the production of port?
I am a global warming sceptic but, as a grape grower myself, it is hard to ignore the fact that something seems to have been going on with the climate over the past decade or more. The Douro is fortunate in having a spread of micro- and meso-climates and there is no reason why the region should not adapt. The grape varieties used to make port are amazingly drought resistant. There have been hot years (like 2003) but also cooler ones (like 2014). Vintage variation is what wine is all about and climate change adds a new and rather fascinating (if slightly scary) element to this.

Do you think that technology has generally been a good or bad thing for port?
Oh undoubtedly a good thing! But it has to be used wisely. When new technology has been rushed in, it has had negative consequences (as in the 1970s when I think there was a dip in the quality of vintage port). The port shippers have in general learnt from this and new inventions (like the robotic treading of grapes) have been introduced gradually.

Port is often regarded as an old-fashioned tipple; how would you convince today’s drinkers that it’s worth trying?
Port is a drink with a long history but it is just as relevant today as it always was. I defy any wine drinker not to be seduced by a glass of ten or twenty year old tawny served cool from the fridge on a warm summer’s day. It is about matching the wine to the mood and port with its multiplicity of styles is more than just a wine for drinking after dinner at Christmas!

Port-tasting is quite a specialised skill. How did you get into it – were you a natural or did you have to learn?
We all have to learn and I am still learning all the time. Every time I taste a new vintage I am learning something new. Taste is about memory and experience. I am fortunate in that I have plenty of both!

Can you tell us about the worst port you have ever tasted?
It would have to be something masquerading as port coming from another country. There are still some very poor, cheap imitations out there though fortunately they don’t tend to make it as far as the UK.

Who is the greatest character you have met during your long career in the port trade? Can you tell us about him/her?
I think it is the late and lamented Bruce Guimaraens who was the wine maker for Taylor and Fonseca until 1995. He made every wine from 1960 onwards including the great 1963, 1966 and 1970 vintages. Bruce was a huge man, in all respects, who knew every inch of the Douro and was treated with great regard and affection by growers and shippers alike. He spoke everyone’s language, in both Portuguese and English. He liked nothing better than a good glass of port and, eschewing the purple prose sometimes favoured by wine writers, he would drain the decanter and say ‘it’s just bloody good vintage port’. He is profiled on page 172 of my book [Port and the Douro].

Other than port what is your favourite drink – not necessarily alcoholic – and why?
I don’t drink much other than wine, water and tomato juice! I hate sweet, fizzy drinks and I don’t drink spirits. But I do like a bloody mary!

Richard Mayson is the author of Port and the Douro and Richard Mayson’s guide to vintage port
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Port and lemon, madam?

29 September 2014 by in Wine and spirits

We’re all aware of the centenary of the First World War and the commemorations will no doubt go on for many years to come. Undoubtedly the war changed the face of Britain, and indeed the world, irrevocably. We can thank this war for the invention of tanks, the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and women’s suffrage. It also saw a change in our drinking habits.

Once the Treaty of Versailles had been signed and the world was left to rebuild, Britain’s drinking habits began to shift. One often thinks of port as a rather old-fashioned drink; in Port and the Douro Richard Mayson draws attention to the time that port became the fashionable tipple of the day:

‘In the aftermath of the First World War, ruby Port was drunk in huge quantities by the British and became strongly associated with the archetypal street-corner pub. It was often the basis for a long drink, ‘Port and lemon’ – a shot of ruby poured over ice, let down with fizzy lemonade and served with a slice of lemon. I have to admit to being a fan of the British soap opera Coronation Street (one of the longest-running TV series in the world) where Port and lemon was a special-occasion drink enjoyed at the Rovers Return by ladies like Hilda Ogden (when she wasn’t in her curlers). The fashion for Port and lemon began to fade in the 1960s and, sadly, the Hildas of this world are now few and far between. More recently, Liz MacDonald has been known to enjoy a Port and lemon now and then but ruby Port has now given way to proprietary brands like Archers and Baileys. Port and lemon was that sort of drink!’

So as we remember the fallen this year why not raise a glass of Port and lemon to their memory – we think you’ll enjoy it.

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Australian and New Zealand wine expertise comes to the UK

22 September 2014 by in Wine and spirits

To mark the Negociants UK winemakers tour, where winemakers from Australia and New Zealand come to the UK to share their passion for wine and perhaps divulge a few of their trade secrets, we’ve been thinking about how place defines the wine that it creates.

The wine trade is truly global and in Secrets of wine, Giles Kime highlights the sheer diversity of winemaking and the variety of different regions where it is produced. Could you tell the origin of your glass from just a sip? Here’s what Giles has to say:

Secrets of wineWine falls into two categories: the stuff that reflects the winemaking tradition of the region where it was produced and the sort that tastes as though it could have been made anywhere in the world where the sun shines enough to ripen grapes. There’s not much wrong with the latter; the huge advances in winemaking technology in the last decade have made it possible to produce good-value wines virtually anywhere. What sets these two kinds of wine apart is something that wine buffs call ‘typicity’ – meaning that they conform to a certain style that is typical of the wine’s birthplace. How important is this quality? If wine is enjoyable to drink, surely to worry about typicity is nothing more than splitting hairs? Possibly. But a world without wines that reflect their origins would be very boring. Which would you rather do? Drive hundreds of miles through the unchanging landscape of the American plains or wind your way through the ever-changing scenery of France, Italy or Spain?

When it comes to wine, variety is undoubtedly the spice of life. While the consistency of ‘global’ wines might offer a convenient option for everyday drinking, the highs and lows are provided by wines that taste of the place they come from. There are parallels between winemaking and cookery. The people of every region of the world have their own tastes in food that are influenced by the available ingredients, the climate and the gastronomic tradition that has evolved over the years. Precisely the same is true of wine.

A sense of place versus a suggestion of terroir
Describing a wine as having a ‘sense of place’ could easily be confused with suggesting that it expresses terroir. Though terroir does contribute to the sense of place, the typicity of a wine has more to do with winemaking tradition – the style of wine created by techniques such as oak ageing and blending. The grim reapers of the wine world might make gloomy predictions that typical wines are being replaced with ones that have no regional characteristics, but the fact is that these two kinds of wine can coexist happily side by side.

Where to find typical wines
Although it is easy to see typicity as a quality that is peculiar to European wine
regions such as France, Italy and Spain, some New World areas are developing their own styles and winemaking traditions. For instance Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough in New Zealand tastes very different from Sauvignon from Western Australia, and Barossa Shiraz has a style different from Shiraz made in South Africa. Here are areas where you are likely to find more typical wines that are true to local tradition than homogenous ‘global wine’.

Old World The New World
The Mosel Valley
The Loire
The South of France
The Barossa Valley
The Clare Valley
The Hunter Valley
The Margaret River
The Napa Valley

If this has got you in the mood to find out more about wine, you might be interested to know that Infinite Ideas soon to publish a new addition to the classic wine library, the sixth edition of Sherry by Julian Jeffs. It’s available to preorder now.

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