A neighbour once described to a client of HBJ Gateley that the stack of empties outside our house on recycling day was a well-known local landmark.
The announcement of our one year old little boy, only just beginning to speak, spontaneously saying “Majestic” as I drove past the Causewayside branch might be consistent with this heinous allegation. So when asked to write a, preferably witty, piece on wine for BQ it seemed to me that the editor had the wrong man – I was known in a former life as ‘Serious Ed’ – but might just find something to say about the demon grape.
In fact, all this time I have been selflessly researching a quite drawn-out geography project. And so it was in the spirit of such research that I agreed to skip into the historic and yet timeless vault of Whighams wine bar, Scotland’s oldest wine cellar and a veritable Edinburgh institution.
As a trainee in Henderson Boyd Jackson, I signed my first mortgage in this ancient basement, beneath the pavement of Hope Street. In those days it was narrow and conspiratorial. Now, almost 20 years later, it is much expanded but retains the enticing smell of pulled corks.
One of my brothers has made a career from writing surprisingly readable books about Marcel Proust and À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). Most sensible people know about this only from pop-culture references to the famous madeleine moment, perpetuated much to my brother’s annoyance as if the other 3,000 pages contained nothing remarkable. I think the idea of a morsel of food taking one back in time is true enough – yet for me stronger still is the ability of the taste and smell of drinks to evoke an instant memory of scattered places around the world.
Professionally I deal with the legals around ships, which happily enough allows me to put these theories to the test.
Vodka and pickled gherkins in Almaty. Mimosas in Milan. A cold and viscous Chardonnay during a transaction completion meeting in Buenos Aires. Vintage champagne on Red Square. A hasty Becks in Bremen. Raki with octopus, afloat on the Bosphorus. Iced Ayran in Baku. Attempting (and failing) to look masculine while sipping a predictable eponymous sling in Singapore. All these hardships have befallen me during ship sale and purchase transactions, visits my wife refuses to allow me to call ‘work’ trips.
I certainly wouldn’t be so smug or so crass as to recount the tale of being left with a whole bottle of Dom Perignon on my tray table during a flight to Kuala Lumpur, to save the stewardess some shoe leather after she realised that I was the only non-Muslim in the cabin needing to be served that particular refreshment. Refreshing it was.
These bibulous journeys into flavours and tastes encourage me always to try something new but also emphasise the reminder of a place. The French call this terroir – the combination of soil, climate and aspect, which makes wine unique to its geography.
The lazy recourse to sauvignon, cabernet or blanc, when presented with a wine list or at the supermarket aisle to me is like going to a specialist real ale pub and asking for a pint of indigenous cooking lager. Variety is the spice of life, from Albarino to Zinfandel. One such discovery is a lesser known varietal called Picpoul from Languedoc in the South of France – I have never been, but imagine bright whitewashed walls and terracotta tiles, seaside and shellfish.
I once read, Jancis Robinson perhaps, that one might judge a fish restaurant on whether they had Picpoul de Pinet on their list. I would say one might judge a wine bar on whether they also serve seafood. Whighams, under the guidance of James Greenhill, achieves both perfectly. The menu matches the wines and the bar staff are like good sommeliers, knowledgeable but not pushy. The Picpoul I tasted was a 2012 Beauvignac, offering aromas of lime zest and fresh apricots, rather delicate but as such very quaffable and unquestionably the perfect partner for scallops or mussels.
For red, to follow, I sampled a 2011 Hunter’s Pinot Noir from Marlborough in New Zealand.
It was smoky with black pepper notes yet also felt summery, not a winter warmer or a bold statement. This is far removed from a blockbuster Shiraz or a velvet aged Margaux, rather an unobtrusive and refined companion, not braying in corduroy at the bar. So if a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine, take your research to these foreign fields, with light food rather than heavy dining. To me, these are lunch rather than dinner wines. Two more green bottles for the cairn at the end of the driveway. Of course, I could take them to the recycling myself instead of leaving them on the pavement, but the locals might lose their way.
Special thanks to James Greenhill and the staff at Whigham Wine Cellar, 13 Hope Street, corner of Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, EH2 4EL. 0131 225 8674.
These wines are available from Whigham Wine Cellar, the Pinot Noir sells for £29.95 while a bottle of Picpoul is £19.95.