Mulled Wine

Every year, from about now, you’ll probably find you heart sinking as your host ladles out a turbid concoction referred to as “glue fine” or “van show”. It contrives to be cloyingly sweet, yet somehow bitter, mouth-puckeringly sour and much nastier than the sum of its ingredients. It will, at first, be scaldingly hot, searing you through its thin, plastic cup, quite possibly causing a painful spillage, then become quite suddenly uninvitingly tepid, and it will have bits in it. Don’t do this to people you like; here’s how to serve up a genuine treat.

Take 1 bottle of Manor Wines‘ (look, it is our blog) Vicuña Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot. It’s the perfect wine for mulling, with plenty of big, fruity flavours. Whatever you do, don’t use wine you wouldn’t drink un-mulled.

6 cloves
1 bay leaf
1 stick of cinnamon (avoid ground spices if possible or the result will be cloudy: it should be a wonderful deep, clear, glossy red!)
1 lemon, sliced
1 orange, sliced
Sugar to taste; less not more, this is meant to be for grown-ups

1 small glass of brandy (Spanish is good here, inexpensive with a great toffee flavour that works well). It’ll be delicious without, but this does give extra depth and pungency.

Put the wine, brandy and sugar in a covered pan (mix it in so it doesn’t catch on the bottom) with the cloves, bay leaf, cinnammon, lemon and orange. Heat and simmer gently for a minute then remove from the stove and allow to steep for half an hour or so (still with the lid on). Don’t let it sit much longer than this or you’ll get bitter flavours from the citrus fruits. If you are mulling the wine in advance, take the orange and lemon out and cover the pan.

Strain, adjust the sweetness and re-heat if necessary, just up to a simmer. There’s nothing to gain by boiling it and you’ll just drive off the alcohol and the more delicate flavours.

Serve it in something with a handle, preferably thick enough to keep the drink warm.

Enjoy it while you can …

O’Brien took the decanter by the neck and filled up the glasses with a dark-red liquid. […] Seen from the top the stuff looked almost black, but in the decanter it gleamed like a ruby. It had a sour-sweet smell. He saw Julia pick up her glass and sniff at it with frank curiosity.

‘It is called wine,’ said O’Brien with a faint smile. ‘You will have read about it in books, no doubt. Not much of it gets to the Outer Party, I am afraid.’ […]

Winston took up his glass with a certain eagerness. Wine was a thing he had read and dreamed about. […] it belonged to the vanished, romantic past, the olden time as he liked to call it in his secret thoughts. For some reason he had always thought of wine as having an intensely sweet taste, like that of blackberry jam and an immediate intoxicating effect. Actually, when he came to swallow it, the stuff was distinctly disappointing. The truth was that after years of gin-drinking he could barely taste it. He set down the empty glass.

From “1984” by George Orwell

In praise of fortified wines

He [Dr Johnson] rang the bell violently and, when the landlord was fetched, entered upon a learned disquisition on wines, with the well-thumbed cellar-book of the inn as his text. “Claret we shall not drink, though our host recommends his binns and it is the favourite drink of gentlemen in your country, sir. In winter weather it is too thin, and, even when well warmed, too cold. Nay, at its best it is but a liquor for boys.”

“And for men?” Alastair asked.

“For men port, and for heroes brandy.”

“Then brandy be it.”

“Nay, sir,” he said solemnly. “Brandy on the unheroic, such as I confess myself to be, produces too soon and certainly the effect of drunkenness. Drunkenness I love not, for I am a man accustomed to self-examination, and I am conscious when I am drunk, and that consciousness is painful. Others know not when they are drunk or sober. I know a man, a very worthy bookseller, who is so habitually and equally drunk that even his intimates cannot perceive that he is more sober at one time than another. Besides, my dear lady may summon us to a hand at cartes or to drink tea with her.”

Eventually he ordered a bottle of port, one of old madeira and one of brown sherry, that he might try all three before deciding by which he should abide. Presently Edom was summoned, and on his heels came dinner. It proved to be an excellent meal to which Mr Johnson applied himself with a serious resolution. There was thick hare soup, with all the woods and pastures in its fragrance, and a big dressed pike, caught that morning in the inn stew-pond. This the two Scots did not touch, but Mr Johnson ate of it largely, using his fingers, because, as he said, he was short-sighted and afraid of bones. Then came roast hill mutton, which he highly commended. “Yesterday,” he declared, “we also dined upon mutton – mutton ill-fed, ill-killed, ill-kept and ill-dressed. This is as nutty as venison.” But he reserved his highest commendations for a veal pie, made with plums, which he averred was his favourite delicacy. With the cheese and wheaten cakes which followed he sampled the three bottles and decided for the port. Alastair and Edom were by comparison spare eaters, and had watched with admiration the gallant trencher-work of their companion. For liquor they drank a light rum punch of Alastair’s compounding, while Mr Johnson consumed, in addition to divers glasses of sherry and Madeira, two bottles of rich dark port, dropping a lump of sugar into each glass and stirring it with the butt of a fork.

And all the while he talked, wisely, shrewdly, truculently, and with a gusto comparable to that which he displayed in the business of eating.

From “Midwinter” by John Buchan

Bargains are hard

1189A genuine steal is a rarity in the wine trade, despite what supermarkets would have us believe.

Those ‘half price’ deals are actually almost always wines being sold at their true value – the offer price is what they’re actually worth. They are sold at double price for the requisite period before the ‘price cut’ and then offered at ‘half price’ with all the appearance of a stunning deal. Check out the blog “Devious Dealings” for some more some more insights into the dubious practices of our leading retailers.

Enough of that cynicism, because Chateau Constantin-Chase Pétale de Rosé 2012 is a genuine bargain: a really delicious rosé from the Luberon – essentially a provencal rosé – for £5.95 inc VAT. That, of course, requires a little explanation to be credible: what’s happened is that one of our producers has branched out and bought a new vineyard from which he wants to produce red wine but In the cellars is a quantity of rosé wine. He simply wants to clear the cellar as neatly as possible, and so we have access to a small parcel of wine at a genuine bargain price.

The wine is excellent (we should know, we’ve sampled it enough), absolutely comparable to wine we have to sell at twice the price, and there isn’t much of it. So, for once, grab a real half-price bargain.

Prosecco – mouthful of the moment

Prosecco’s an Italian sparkling* wine, relatively low in alcohol (around 11%), named for the region it’s made in – Prosecco, just North of Venice – and it’s got to be made there, otherwise it can’t be called Prosecco. It’s made from at least 85% Glera grapes (which, confusingly, were also known as Prosecco).

It’s produced by the Charmat method: first, make a still wine, then put it in a tank with sugar and yeast to ferment again under pressure, dissolving CO2 and making bubbly. Bottle and drink within 3 years. Prosecco can be Spumante (fully sparkling) or Frizzante (lightly so).

Although it was once similar to the sometimes cloying sweetness of neighbouring Asti (which we think can be fantastic with cakes and puddings but not much else), the modern Prosecco is much more grown-up and adaptable. For many it’s the perfect aperitif, half the price of champagne, a good level of fruit that makes it interesting and easy to drink but remaining elegantly dry and refreshing.

* Like all things vinous, nothing’s absolute: there is still Prosecco, but not much is made and hardly any of that gets out of Italy.

Devious dealings

So, if tax alone is nearly £2 how do the supermarkets put a bottle of wine on the shelf at £4.00 – or even less? There’s no single answer of course (except that it’s not magic), but read on to find some of the ways it’s done, both fair(ish) and foul.

As we all know, supermarkets are big operations and can buy a lot at a time (reassuringly referred to as ‘buying power’). Wine makers, like most other producers, welcome large orders: the lower marketing and admin costs allow them to offer better prices and these can be passed on to the retail customer. In fact, Manor Wines does something very similar through its buying consortium – a group of independent wine merchants with similarly high standards who work together to buy wines at the most advantageous prices.

There are clear guidelines on how retailers may promote ‘special offers’, for instance the ‘Code of Practice for Traders on Price Indications’ from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), but these are almost impossible to police effectively, particularly with wine. Take the case of The Offer That Never Was. A wine is offered for sale at a much inflated price, say £10; it doesn’t sell at all well but a big noise is then made offering it at “half price: only £5!”, and this is where the bulk of sales are made – on the back of the supposed reduction. The wine may only be worth £5 at best, and the DTI specifically requires that the comparison should only be made “in the reasonable expectation that [the wine] could be sold by you at the higher price” – but who can prove that? Dissatisfied drinkers comfort themselves that “at least it was cheap …”

Dodgier yet, a brand is established and sold at a reasonable price. It builds up a following of customers, but when the “special offer” is announced the contents behind the brand will not be the same as the full priced wine. It will be from similar grapes but of lesser quality. Any perceived discrepancy in quality can be passed off as vintage variation or the vagaries of a natural product. Known as ‘de-engineering’ to those that practise it. Lovely.

A favourite with big retailers: simply charge your suppliers to sell their products! Supermarkets pressure wine makers to pay them fees to list their wines.

Additionally, they may pay such a low price for the wine that the maker has to save money elsewhere, perhaps by paying the workers badly (South Africa and South America have been particularly vulnerable here). Or by not investing in the future of the winery, and when quality inevitably falls and/or the winery goes bust, they move on.

And then there’s the good old loss leader: sell your wine at a loss, it brings in business to other sectors of your store which will create enough profit to cover the loss in the wine aisles, and soon you will have disposed of any local businesses that cannot afford to play this game.

It’s enough to make you turn to drink …

Wine that costs too little

There is a point where good value becomes just too good to be true.

It pays to know that the fixed costs in a bottle of wine remain pretty much the same for the humblest eastern european plonk to the grandest domaine in Burgundy.

These prices are approximate but are certainly close enough to make the point:

Bottle, cork, label, shipping, storage say £1.50

Duty £2.00 (yes, that’s £2.00, as of the 2013 Budget)

VAT £0.70 (20% on ALL the above … even our tax is taxed!)

This means that before you’ve paid for any wine at all the bill is £4.20 So, if you’ve gone down to the supermarket and paid £4.50 for a bottle of “good value,honest, everyday” wine you’ve actually spent 30p on the liquid you’re going to imbibe – and it’s not surprising if you’re not as happy as you might be.

On the other hand, if you pay about £5.50 you will have paid 3 times more for the wine, and given the winemaker at least a chance of putting something worthwhile into the bottle.

So spend a little more than the bare minimum on a bottle of wine – you (and the winemaker) are worth it. And funnily enough, a little over £5 is the price our wines start at: in our view you can’t have a decent drink for anything less.

As if you didn’t know already …


… it’s now been confirmed by Eurostat that the UK is second only to Ireland as the most expensive country in Europe in which to buy alcohol. All the more reason to make sure that what you do buy is delicious as well as costing less.

One way of achieving great value is to avoid the obvious: great French Pinot Noir comes from Burgundy and all the world knows it. There isn’t that much, so it’s expensive. BUT the French do make Pinot Noir outside Burgundy and it’s called Le Fou (because only an idiot would try this), and, lo and behold, it’s delicious AND affordable. Get it now before the rest of the world finds out.

En Primeur Madness


The arcane process of the annual Bordeaux wine price fixing (oh OK, better make that price setting) jamboree is well under way. With three “once-in-a-lifetime” vintages already this century, what’s a sensible drinker, who simply wants to enjoy one of life’s great pleasures without trying to outbid the combined financial muscle of the Far East, to do?

Look no further than Chateau Batailley. As a recent comment in the wine trade press remarked, it’s excellent wine at a very fair price. You’d be crazy not to.

New Massaya

To the Lebanese restaurant Ishbilia to meet Sami Ghosn, who, with his brother Ramzi, runs the Massaya vineyards and winery in the Bekaa valley. The cooking of the Lebanon is rightly famous and, naturally enough, it has the wines to go with it. Manor Wines has long been a supporter of the great wines from Château Musar but we reckon cellar space must be found for those of Massaya, too.

It was a great lunch, with Sami talking knowledgably and with justifiable pride about his wines and the Bekaa valley. It’s a fascinating place, steeped in history, with a wine making tradition going back 6,000 years. One of the keys to its successful wines is the altitude: even though it’s so much further south, harvests come later than in the Rhône valley, so the grapes ripen gently without producing that ‘raisin jam’ effect of so many hot climate wines.

We finished with Massaya’s remarkable arak, unlisted but it you’d like a case we’d be happy to get some in with the next consignment of wines.