Olly Smith: Know your grapes
I love the pub. A pint of local beer always hits the spot and my personal favourite is Harveys Best Bitter, the magnificent brew that flows like rivers of good cheer through my home county of East Sussex. But just like well-kept beer, when a wine list and its bottles are carefully looked after, a…
I love the pub. A pint of local beer always hits the spot and my personal favourite is Harveys Best Bitter, the magnificent brew that flows like rivers of good cheer through my home county of East Sussex.
But just like well-kept beer, when a wine list and its bottles are carefully looked after, a glass of vino can be as delicious as any drink from the bar.
Here is Britain our wines are rivalling some of the world’s best. Our fizz is finally gathering the kind of respect that it deserves — as I’ve been advocating and personally collecting for the past 20 years. Look out for quality names such as Camel Valley in Cornwall, Hambledon in Hampshire, Breaky Bottom in East Sussex and, indeed, wherever you find yourself, ask if they stock the local bubbly.
The zesty style of our homegrown bubbles are unbeatably refreshing. But that’s by no means the whole story. 2018 was our best British vintage ever, with 15 million bottles produced, compared to the usual of around five million. Quality and quantity are both up and prices remain friendly for our fragrant white Bacchus, which is a thrilling alternative to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Or how about an elegant glass of red from our prime Pinot Noir? English rosés are well worth seeking out too.
But beyond our shores, what should you be looking for to accompany decent pub food? For an all-round white, Italian is the best choice. I know how tempting it can be to stick with what you know, but try grapes liek Grillo and Fiano, which are both characterful and quenching.
And my top tip is to look for Verdicchio (pronounced ‘Ver-dick-ee-oh’). 2018 has produced some sensational quality and value from this grape, which is grown on the Adriatic coast around the Marche. If it’s fish and chips or light bits, this is the cool splendour to pour and revel in. For salads, French rosé from Provence is tough to beat, especially with garlic flavours.
As for reds in the pub, I’m a fan of styles that are juicy and fruity rather than too rich and savoury: lesser-known grapes such as Austrian Blaufränkisch offer value from off the beaten track, as well as a lighter, silky glass to pair with succulent burgers or pies. And for something a bit richer, while Malbec rightly has its fans, seek out Carménère from Chile for a red with mellow depty and gentle spice. It’s the perfect match for a lamb shank or hearty roast.
As for curries, the best pairing with a chicken tikka masala is Pinot Gris, whch you can pick from Alsace for a lush silky style or New Zealand for something fab and fruity. And with meaty curries like a rogan josh, dive into Rioja — the gentle mellow character of the wine works a charm with those aromatic spices.
Another ay to find great wines without blowing the budget is to select wines that remain — inexplicably — out of fashion. Portugal has an amazing range of styles; try a glass of Malmsey from Madeira with your cheeseboard — it tastes like liquid chutney. Greece has long been a favourite of mine for boutique wines that punch way about their price point; if your pub has an adventurous wine list, look for Assyrtiko from Santorini ofor a turbo-charged zinger of a white or a red Xinomavro, which tastes like a cross between the world’s best Barolo and priciest Pinot Noir.
And while French classics tend to have prices to reflect their status, Muscadet remains magically underrated to sip with your shellfish platter and, for a light red at lunchtime, the Beaujolais Crus are some of the world’s finest wines that still have fun prices: Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie and the rest. Check the names of the ten Beaujolais Cru and look for them on the wine list.
And finally, hats off to pubs that are taking an increasing pride in the way wine is kept, preserved and served. Temperature is key — when whties are too cold they mute down and when reds are too warm they fall apart. Decanting the wine into a jug or carafe helps open up flavours and aromas and doesn’t cost anything except for a few extra seconds of service.
If it were up to me, I’d serve all wines by the glass to give maximum choice to each individual customer (as I do in my Glass House wine bars on board the P&O Cruises fleet). Rmember that wine is like books, movies, TV shows and pizzas — we all have our favourite. The best pubs will listen to their customers and recommend the sort of wine that will bring them nothing but delight, and at a price that makes their wallet break into song. Happy sipping and here’s to you.
Olly Smith is a multi-award-winning drinks expert and broadcaster. A regular on BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen, he is also the wine columnist for the Mail on Sunday, the author of five boozy books and the presenter of the new Warner Bros TV series How Beer Changed the World.
This article was extracted from the Good Pub Guide 2020, out now. Read about Olly’s favourite pub here.