High life and hangovers in Edinburgh

High life and hangovers in Edinburgh

Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, I usually always get the same response –  namely: “I’d LOVE your job!”

But being a wine merchant is not as glamorous as you would think. Yes, there are the weekly wine tastings and the amazing trips abroard, but it’s not all glamour, believe me. For every day spent wining and dining, there will be another ten of paperwork, stress, dealing with difficult customers, and the thrice-weekly sweaty ordeal of manually lifting hundreds of cases of wine off the side of lorries in the wind and rain. And don’t get me started on the hangovers. (Cue an orchestra of tiny violins).

But, every once in a while, I’ll be invited to a swanky trade event/glamorous piss-up of such incredible promise and provenance, that it makes it all worthwhile. Last week I was invited to one such event in Edinburgh – a masterclass with legendary Portuguese winemaker Luis Sottomayor at The Balmoral Hotel, followed by lunch at their Michelin-starred restaurant Number One. Needless to say, this was an opportunity I was not going to miss, and as soon as the invite came in, my diary was cleared and the train tickets were booked.

Okay, so it’s a four-hour journey from my front door to The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, but I knew it would be worth it. And boy, was it ever.

Luis Sottomayor is probably the most famous and respected winemaker in Portugal. His acclaimed Casa Ferreirinha makes the best wines to come from the Douro region, including the legendary and eye-wateringly expensive ‘Barca Velha’ – which is football manager Jose Mourinho’s favourite wine, and was famously the bottle that Mourinho always treated Sir Alex Ferguson to when the two opposing managers enjoyed a post-match drink.

But it isn’t all about the super-expensive gear – Casa Ferreirinha also produce wines from their Quinta da Leda estate close to the Spanish border – and these magnificent reds retail for around £36. So, the first treat of the day was a masterclass with Luis Sottomayer, who told us all about his wines and his wine-making philosophy, and then treated us to what those in the trade call a ‘vertical tasting’ of 7 vintages, starting with the 2010 and ending with the 2016 – the vintage currently available in the UK.

Nice view! Shame the room stank of wet paint

The Quinta da Leda has flavours of ripe blackberry and damson, alongside wood spice, cedar and leather. It is reasonably full-bodied, but is counterbalanced by a pleasant acidity that maintains its freshness. The stand out vintages, for me, were the 2010, the 2011, and the 2016. Thankfully, the 2016 is readily available in the UK, and shall now be making its way to the shelves at Cork of the North. I strongly recommend grabbing a bottle or two before the vintage has sold out – particularly as Luis told us that the 2016 has more quality and ageing potential than the sublime 2010.

The five-course lunch at Number One was pretty spectacular. I will not be so unfair as to list all the courses here, as I do find boasting about a meal that I’ve had – and you haven’t – has more than a hint of a schadenfruder about it. But special mention, however, should go to the outstanding first course –  a jaw-droppingly delicious Orkney scallop tartare, with kohlrabi, kaffir lime and caviar – served with Casa Ferreirinha’s ‘Vinha Grande’ rose. Every single morsel on that exquisite plate was as memorable as the last.

There were six wines to enjoy over lunch, and for me, a real stand out was the Casa Ferreirinha ‘Callabriga’ 2017. It had great structure and was elegant yet powerful – almost like the best Valpolicella Ripasso you have ever tasted. This silky red is a blend of the Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz grapes, boasting intense flavours of blackcurrant and blueberry. I absolutely loved it – and this is another wine that will soon be available at Cork of the North…at a do-able £24 a bottle.

Personally, I was waiting for the main event: the cheese course. Not necessarily because of the cheese you understand, but because this was the course that would be paired with a glass of the legendary ‘Barca Velha’ 2008.

Casa Ferreirinha only make the Barca Velha in exceptional years. This is one of the world’s greatest wines, praised by leading experts and is an undisputed symbol of Portuguese wine excellence. It really was a sensation for the senses – the Barca Velha had complex aromas of prune, blueberry, cloves and orange… and on the palate it was silky smooth yet full-bodied, with a great acidity that ensured elegance and harmony. This is a truly excellently made wine that will win you over with the very first sip. But one thing to note is the eye-watering price. The Barca Velha 2008 retails at around £340 a bottle – and if you spot this on the wine list at a restaurant, expect to pay just short of £650. At this price, it is sadly out of reach for most people other than rich Russians and loaded football managers – but I can see why Mourinho was so happy to show this off as Portugal’s best wine to Fergie.

Now, I certainly don’t have the means to buy a £650 bottle of wine to regularly enjoy with lunch, but if I did – I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed with the spectacular Barca Velha. I will not, however, start to stock this wine at Cork of the North – because I probably wouldn’t be able to sell it quickly at that price, and there would always be the very real risk that I would drink it myself, showing off to some pals in the bar after I’d had a skin-full.

Whilst enjoying this wine, my wine supplier friend told me the tragi-comedy story of the Bristol Rovers manager, who thought he would impress Mourinho by buying a bottle of this to drink with Mourinho after a Cup game at his ground.

Sadly, the manager in question left it too late to find a bottle in the UK, so had to arrange for a single bottle to be flown over at great personal expense. Thankfully, the bottle arrived just in time for kick-off, but sadly, Mourinho was pissed off about something that happened in the game and refused to drink it with the Rovers manager after the game. Foul play, I say.

After the final course, we enjoyed a glass or two of the Sandeman 20-year-old Tawny Port, and then my Scottish wine hosts tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I would I like to come upstairs for a ‘livener’. I was slightly perturbed by this, as I was unsure what they meant…  but my trepidation was thankfully short-lived when I discovered that the ‘livener’ in question was a bucket-load of chilled Charles Heidsieck Champagne. (Fun fact: Charles Heidsieck was the original man given the now-often-used nickname ‘Champagne Charlie’).

Four bottles of Heidseick down, the assembled throng of wine professionals had the taste for it, in a very big way. As if all the wine at the masterclass and lunch wasn’t enough – to my reckoning we’d had about 17 glasses of wine and counting…. we then left The Balmoral for a king-sized booze-up par excellence at the nearby Café Royal.

Wine merchants on a sesh never drink wine when they’re out in pubs. This is largely because the wine on offer at your average pub is of dire quality, so we have to make do with other beverages. My night from this point on is now something of a blur, but I do recall drinking pints of beer, a Bloody Mary, and several double rum and Cokes before staggering off to my hotel. I think a plate of oysters made an appearance at some point, too.

It was half twelve by the time I got back to my hotel room – which had lovely views, but reeked of wet paint. I suppose I should have been grateful that they had spruced the place up for me.

My alarm woke me at 9.30am, but I found it physically impossible to left my aching head off the pillow. The night before, I had drunkenly set my alarm for breakfast – but experience should really tell me that this is a useless exercise. In all my years as a wine merchant, and in the years previous to that working and touring as a DJ, I have seen a lot of hotels, but have NEVER made it down to breakfast, despite my good intentions the night before. But I always set my alarm earlier than necessary, just in case I can manage it. Will I ever learn?

For every day and night spent living the high life, there is always a high price to pay – namely, the dreaded hangover. I am a seasoned drinker (surprise, surprise), but I have always suffered greatly with hangovers.

As you can imagine, most wine merchants consider regular hangovers to be a normal part of professionaI life, and I have my own way of dealing with them; namely – treat your hangover like a house fire.

I mean, if your house was on fire, you wouldn’t just throw a fire blanket on it, would you? You’d also throw water on it, empty a fire extinguisher, and call the fire brigade. The more varied your response, the better – and the way I deal with hangovers is the same; throw everything you can at it – a paracetamol alone just won’t work.

My tried and trusted technique is as follows: Firstly, drink a large glass of cold water, then get some eggs and toast down you as quickly as humanly possible. Then, with stodge in your belly, throw down a couple of Ibruprofen, followed by some paracetamol – and then you’ll need to ingest some sweet stuff, to bring your blood sugar levels back to normal. Iron Bru or Lucozade works a treat, as do wine gums. If you are really suffering, then I recommend a special morning cocktail that I like to call a Berocca-tini – a fizzy blend of Berocca and soluble paracetamol. Ten minutes later, BOOM! You’re back in the room. The fire is out. Take a 10-minute walk and not only is the house fire out, but the embers aren’t even warm.  Take it from an expert.

Edinburgh – I salute you, oh wonderful city. I also salute the wonderful Luis Sottomayer, the Number One restaurant, and my wonderful Scottish hosts. But most of all, I salute the magical restorative powers of Ibruprofen.


More adventures in wine are to follow.

(ps. Please drink responsibly…….)

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