Andy Newman welcomes the increasing availability of wine
by the glass
Working as I do in the media, most people assume that my days are split into three distinct parts: a productive morning, mainly fuelled by coffee; a long lunch, mainly fuelled by wine; and a somewhat quieter afternoon, mainly fuelled by somnolence.
Certainly this was once true. The only real decision to make at lunchtime was whether to order a second bottle. Wine bars and restaurants near media outlets were more or less guaranteed daily custom, with good profits to be had from expense account-funded wine sales.
How times have changed. It’s tempting to look at those days through rosé-tinted spectacles – and it was certainly fun while it lasted – but that kind of behaviour was never really going to be acceptable in the newly austere millennium.
Quite unreasonable demands from employers that their staff should be sober enough to get some work done in the afternoon, coupled with a growing awareness of the health effects of such sustained heavy drinking, have largely put paid to the convention of consuming wine in 750ml units, at least at lunchtime.
Of course, there are lots of different bottle sizes (the joy of having a ‘half-bot’ to yourself is much under-estimated in my view), but our standard bottle size results from a mixture of lunch capacity and the EU’s desire to standardise.
When glass bottles became common in the 18th century, they were hand-blown, and that imposed limits on how big they could be. Most glass blowers only had the pulmonary capacity to create bottles of between 650ml and 750ml, and so this approximate size became the standard.
By the 20th century, most of the world had adopted 750ml as the agreed bottle size, but here in killjoy Britain we insisted on 700ml. It was only when we joined the EEC (as it was then) that the designated bottle size of 750ml became the norm.
But I digress. For the hospitality industry, there became a pressing need to find a way to serve wine in a more manageable portion size. Most places in the 1980s served house wine by the glass, often decanted from large bag-in-box dispensers. The thought of opening a decent bottle to serve the wine by the glass was frowned upon.
You can sympathise a little with this, especially in establishments which didn’t sell a lot of wine. If you opened a bottle and didn’t sell enough of the contents to make a profit before it went off, and you were effectively giving the wine away.
This gave rise to various technological innovations, including the Vacuvin, which supposedly sucked all of the oxidising air out of the opened bottle, and various devices which pumped heavier-than-air gases into the bottle to form a seal between the wine and the air. None of them were terribly effective.
Fortunately, the technology didn’t stand still, and there are now two widespread methods of preserving wine, which makes offering a wide selection of wine by the glass a viable prospect.
The first is the Enomatic machine, a glass-fronted cabinet holding four or eight bottles, which dispenses wine via a tube inserted right to the bottom of the bottle, while replacing it with inert Argon gas from the top. These are the machines you will find in wine bars such as The Wallow in Norwich, allowing a relatively small bar to offer 40 or more wines by the glass, with the knowledge they will be served in tip-top condition, and that wastage will be minimal. Bakers and Larners in Holt also have one, for their wine enthusiasts!
Another equally effective gadget is the Coravin. This inserts a very thin needle through the cork, and extracts wine through that, replacing it – as with the Enomatic – with inert gas. The needle is then withdrawn, leaving the cork in place, which ensures a perfect seal. The Coravin is widely used in top restaurants, allowing fine wine to be offered by the glass.
However they manage it, offering a decent selection of wines by the glass is now something which every wine bar and restaurant must do. It’s no longer enough to have a couple of whites, a couple of reds and a rosé; all but the top end of the list really needs to be offered in this way.
This flexibility is helpful to the committed wine drinker as well: the ability to match each course with a different wine really enhances the pleasure of a meal, something you can’t really do by the bottle unless there are least six of you around the table.
One final thought on wine by the glass. As wine glasses have got bigger, so have the portions of wine in them. The standard ‘big’ glass is 250ml; that’s half a pint of wine. If it’s white, it will have warmed up by the time you finish it, and if it’s red, putting so much wine in a glass will impede its ability to breathe. The 125ml glass remains for me the perfect size. You can always have another one if you’re thirsty.
Three wines Andy has enjoyed this month
Rioja Gran Reserva 2011 Marqués de Cáceres
Majestic, £19.99 when bought as part of a mixed case of six bottles
Only made in excellent vintages, the Gran Reserva from Marqués de Cáceres is a blend of 85% Tempranillo and a 15% mix of Graciano and Garnacha Tinta, and spends two and a half years in oak. On the nose there are notes of coffee, spice and plum, with fleshy fruit on the powerful palate, which also gives melded oak and a long finish. This will keep for a decade – if you can resist opening now.
Corney & Barrow Sparkling Blanc de Blancs Methode Traditionnelle NV
Made from an unusual blend with Ugni Blanc to the fore, this traditional method sparkler has spent 12 months on its lees, giving it extra yeasty creaminess. Aromatic and perfumed, you’ll find green apples, white flowers and brioche on the palate. It is ‘Extra Dry’, which perversely is the French term for not quite bone dry, and the very slight sweetness gives it a freshness. Really good value, and recommended.
Camel Valley Pinot Noir Rosé Brut
When you drink wine like this you can see how English sparklers are giving the Champagne producers a run for their money. With strawberry on the nose and raspberry on the palate, drinking this is an excellent way of reminding yourself of those lazy, sunny, summer days.
Recipe published in Feast Issue 40