His And Hers

I’m sure I’m not the only one. There must be many others among you who have noticed the domestic temperature moving from “comfortable” to “gentle simmer” on account of wine? No, I mean before you’ve drunk any…

A licorice-textured, black fruit-driven, herb infused Southern French red. It's quite nice.

A licorice-textured, black fruit-driven, herb infused Southern French red. It’s quite nice.

It’s a familiar scenario. Two people are idling around a living room with a glass each of an untried wine. One of them is clearly enthused. He starts tilting his glass to precarious angles, squinting and frowning, scrutinising the colour of the wine, despite the room being lit only by two small lamps and a television set. He takes a sniff, and he’s off! He sniffs again, taking on a pensive look and beginning unconsciously to gurn a little. He rests the glass on his knee, swirls it somewhat unsteadily, and sniffs again, and again, seemingly in an effort to reach aromas from beyond the wine itself. His other half looks on kindly as he purses his lips and starts to frown intently at the wall, the blankness of his outward expression betraying his inner tumult. Eventually he sips the wine, and after whole minutes of facial contortion in the pursuit of some arcane vinous pleasure,  he looks up like an eager puppy, gazing imploringly at his other half until finally she delivers her verdict: “Quite nice, isn’t it?” qualified, rather distantly, by “yes, very fruity.” And straight back to Holby City.

Collapse of stout party! He breathes in and doesn’t exhale, lips pursed and eyebrows furrowed as he seeks a tactful way of asking the question formulating in his mind. He breathes out and repeats the performance, this time more briefly as the only question in his head now is whether he can really be bothered pursuing the matter. Fizzing with unspoken imprecations about the calibre of her choice of entertainment and its ability to distract from the really important matters, he selects a few favourite CDs from a shelf and retreats to the reassuring world of his headphones and his visions of vine-strewn hillsides. After a couple of minutes of inattentive listening, he begins to smile softly to nobody in particular, as he realises that one day, to return the favour, she might make him read Middlemarch. He knows his opinion will be “er, yeah, it’s really good,” and to prove he’s been paying it due attention: “Proper long sentences. Not like nowadays.”  Then Holby’s credits roll, he tops up the glasses, and the dial goes back down to “comfortable.”.


The Basement Grapes

Buying an off-beat Japanese malt whisky in Liverpool nowadays is not dissimilar to buying a record by Teenage Jesus and the Jerks in 1979. Discuss, in no more than 790 words…

During my late-70s youth, Liverpool was a fabulous place to spend scrimped lunch money on obscure records, as long as you knew where you were going. Walk along Whitechapel and turn left at Phillips, Son and Nephew and you could marvel at Probe’s breathtaking and curiosity-quenching selection, under the benign gaze of the remarkably informed staff.

Crowds flock to Probe, where a single purchase might change your head forever.

Crowds flock to Probe, where a single purchase might change your head forever.

If they were being a little too informed to bother with you, as was their occasional wont, and your wish list wasn’t too exotic, you might retrace your steps to Rumbelows and NEMS. Here you would wind through a large white goods department to an improbable Narnia of a cellar that could attend to most of your less marginal requests, often politely. But if you really wanted to mystify an out-of-towner, you’d take them to Penny Lane Records.

Even Google Image can't point us to the old city centre branch of Penny Lane records. At least the bags were helpful.

Even Google Image can’t point us to the old city centre branch of Penny Lane records. At least the bags were helpful.

For a start, it wasn’t in Penny Lane. It was, more or less, in one of the side streets off Liverpool’s main shopping drag. If you went down the right one, you could then turn in to a back alley where only one shop existed, through a tiny doorway, down a narrow staircase to a dark basement room which, while minute, seemed to stock every kind of esoterica that could possibly appeal to even the most demanding musical outsider. And some heavy metal. Good job it had a little sign above the door, otherwise you’d think you’d gone somewhere weird.

I was reminded of all this while I looked for a whisky shop in Liverpool recently. While the usual branded drinks are as easy to find in Liverpool as they are anywhere else nowadays, the journey away from the mainstream still requires an A to Z. You can head out of town and find terrific specialist stores in Mossley Hill, Hoylake, Heswall and elsewhere, but the rent-defying city centre independents are still wilfully fighting their small but well-stocked corners. The Ship In A Bottle, a specialist beer shop allied to the Ship And Mitre pub, occupies very few square feet at the wrong end of Whitechapel which it stuffs with beer to some point beyond known laws of physics. Roberts and Henry Fine Wines is flourishing on Castle Street, opposite the Town Hall but a little way up an arcade that you might not notice, and the doyen of the downtown bottle boutique, Scatchards, has moved a little way out of its business-district heartland to somewhere just opposite a Chinese supermarket. Well, who wouldn’t? But the Penny Lane Records award for untraceability goes to a magical emporium called Whisky Business, in just-off-Fenwick-Street. I searched for ten minutes before enquiring in a cigar shop, the lady behind the counter giving me detailed directions to somewhere 20 yards away. Which I still couldn’t find. Down a little mugger’s alley, I found a tiny doorway, opening on to a staircase which led, on the face of it, only to the bottom of the staircase. A twelve inch sign read “Whisky Business.”

This must be the place, then...

This must be the place, then…

And that was that. Turn left at the bottom of the stairs and you’re in a miniscule, cosily dark lobby. This is the shop. At first it looks like there isn’t much in there, but as your eyes adjust, so the range grows before you. Whisky appears all over the place, on shelves, in gift packages, in tasting bottles near the till, joined by a whole gamut of other spirits, liqueurs and weird-and-wonderfuls, all presided over by garrulously welcoming Paul Murphy. If it’s not on the shelf, it’s on the way in. If it’s not on the way in, it’s being chased. If Paul hasn’t heard of it, it doesn’t exist. Good, old-fashioned specialist shopping ethics. The shelf nearest to me displayed five – no, hang on, make that six – Japanese malts. Six! That’s more Japanese malts than Teenage Jesus made records…

Welcome to central Liverpool’s specialist drinks sector. Now you know what netherworld it lives in, no trip to town need end without a bottle of something wonderful. And drop into Probe while you’re at it, as well – they really like people nowadays!

Mike Stoddart.



(Whisky Business officially lives at The Old Ropery, Fenwick Street, which makes it sound easy. Try whiskybusinessliverpool@gmail.com).

(Probe now lives somewhere nice and shiny, and they’re pleased to see you: http://www.probe-records.com/)


Clash City Riojas


What does Rioja taste like? “Er, smooth. Yeah, dead smooth. Especially them Gran Reservas. And fruity as well.” Oh. Is that it?

Spain’s most famous red wine has now been with us, in its popular form at least, for around 150 years. Well the evidence suggests that they’ve been at it since Roman times, but the history that concerns us started in the mid-1800s, when crippling outbreaks of powdery mildew and phylloxera sent Bordeaux wine merchants flocking across the Pyrenees in search of wine to fill their depleted reserves. In response, French duties were relaxed, a rail link was built, the French merchants showed how to age the wine in oak barrels and soon enough a whole cluster of bodegas was founded around Haro railway station, the first stop from Bordeaux.

Haro station, just before it all went off.

Haro station, just before it all went off.

During the late nineteenth century, Rioja was exporting anything up to 13 million gallons of wine a month to France, with some of the larger bodegas building their own platforms on Haro station, and some of the smaller ones bringing wine for blending from all over the region, even from the more humble parts of Rioja Baja, by rail, by horse and cart, by wing and prayer! Of course, phylloxera was bound to catch up with Rioja, and by the turn of the twentieth century the boom years were over, with two World Wars and one Civil War doing little for sustained expansion.

The wine itself, as it was widely made until the latter part of the last century, is remembered with fond, perhaps rosy nostalgia by more mature drinkers. The emphasis was firmly on oak maturation and blending rather than fruit quality and attentive winemaking, and the result was a juicy and vanilla-sweet concoction. Bottlers, who seldom owned land of their own, took little control over the farmers who were growing for them, so fruit quality and yield may occasionally have been compromised; fermentation was fast and maturation took longer than may always have been right for the wine, in old barrels that might not always have been of an age and condition appropriate to the vintage. Great and serious wines were still being made, of course, but by the end of the twentieth century, a large number of bodegas and smaller, more progressive wineries began to reconsider their winemaking techniques.

The Luis Alegre winery, resistant both to tradition and to non-panoramic photography.

The Luis Alegre winery, resistant both to tradition and to non-panoramic photography.

So how does the modern day Rioja winery differ? Let’s have a look at one. Just outside Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa sits Bodegas Luis Alegre, founded by Don Luis Alegre in 1968. A vibrant and much-loved local character, by the late 1990s he had realised that the times they were a-changing, and he drafted in a team of young and passionate oenology graduates to help him update his approach. Good move. They didn’t want to stop at a little friendly advice, and they stuck by Luis’ vision of high quality, meticulously created wines until by 2000 they had built a dazzlingly modern winery set into the hillside. Four floors, with gravity doing all the work to keep aggressive handling down and to maintain the purity of the fruit as far as possible – grapes received at the top, fermentation on the next floor down, then down to the ageing and bottling floors. The bodega itself owns 50 hectares of scrupulously attended vineyards – a rarity until recently – and has a further 30 under contract, which it treats as pretty much its own.  All of the fruit for all of the wines is harvested by hand, and staves of French and American oak are dried at the bodega for at least 18 months, where they are continually analysed to make sure their eventual marriage to the wine will be harmonious. Yes, of course there’s a bit of rather unromantic laboratory work involved, but you couldn’t get much further removed from some of the old ways without making light of the region’s tradition.

And the wines? I shan’t bore you with a list, suffice it to say that I presented two comparatively-priced roble Riojas at a recent tasting event. The first, Vina Valoria, was made in the old-fashioned way and had flavours of sweet dark fruit overlaid with creamy oak. Basically, it tasted like blackcurrant cheesecake, not that this was a fault. Luis Alegre’s Koden Rioja, on the other hand, oak-aged for eight months, sat in the mouth and allowed layers of flavour to unpeel from around its core of fruit concentration, blackberry, spice and only the quietest suggestion of vanilla, all helped along by fine oak tannin and finishing with lingering cloves. Thoroughly modern, and utterly delicious!