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Taste Ranald Macdonald’s wines, and you can forgive his ancestors for allying with the Vikings

8 June 2013

9:00 AM

8 June 2013

9:00 AM

The Macdonalds of Clanranald are one of the oldest families in the world. Their lineage comfortably predates the Scotland of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Descended from the Macdonald Lords of the Isles and sea kings of Dalriada, the Clanranalds emerge from the mists, myths and archaeology of the Dark Ages. But they were guilty of a misjudgment. Just as Robert the Bruce started life as an Anglo-Norman noble, the Macdonalds had to navigate the violent uncertainties of pre- and early medieval Scotland. They also had to reckon with the Vikings.

(A Viking longship arrives at a beach, and the bosun divides the crew into three squads. ‘You lot, burning and slaughtering. You, looting and pillaging.’ Instantly, the third group complain: ‘Oh no, not raping again.’)

Like El Cid on the Spanish/Moorish frontier, the Macdonalds exercised tactical flexibility. Sometimes, they fought the Vikings; on other occasions, they allied with them. In 1263, there was one alliance too many. The Clanranalds fought alongside King Haakon Haakonson of Norway at the battle of Largs. The Norsemen suffered a strategic defeat, and a terminal one. The Viking threat to Scotland was ended, and Alexander II, the victorious King of Scots, consolidated his success by seizing the Lordship of the Isles.


750 years later, Ranald Macdonald, Younger of Clanranald, still looks as if he might have Viking blood. But he has settled for a more peaceable vocation, as a restaurateur, wine merchant and cigar impresario. His premises at Boisdale Belgravia and ditto, Canary Wharf, are well-known, and deservedly so. If you want outstanding fish and shellfish, followed by bloody, well-hung Scotch beef or perhaps haggis, Ranald is your man. On haggis, I confess to heresy. Traditionally, it is served with champit tatties and bashed neeps: a tedious acreage of mediocre vegetatation. I prefer pomme purée, to ensure that not one grain of haggis escapes the fork, plus a sharp French salad. If you insist on neep, why not a young al dente turnip, rather than some root vegetable veteran which would delight a bullock? Needless to say, haggis also needs a dash of gravy. Nothing too grand, mind: a ten-year-old Glenmorangie would suffice.

There is only one problem about Ranald. He likes jazz. De gustibus non est disputandum; even so, how could such insipid stuff be classed as music? Yet there is worse: blues. Admittedly, it could not be described as insipid, but it must be one of the most cacophonous noises ever emitted by a human being. I cannot understand why anyone could enjoy listening to it.

At Boisdale, it is not compulsory, and if the thought of blues makes you shudder, relief is at hand. We started with a 2002 champagne, Boisdale’s chosen vintage, made by Charles Gardet of Rheims. It was seriously good and not overpriced. The non-vintage is also a thoroughly well-made wine. To accompany the meats, we went to the Rhône. A Gigondas La Tour Sarrazine ’09 was barely ready, but exuded quality. But the laureate was a Vacqueyras Grenat Noble ’06 from Domaine Le Clos des Cazaux. It is a wine only made in years when enough grapes are graced by noble rot. It would work well with any big-flavoured food, including foie gras — or haggis.

As such, it provided an excellent platform for the whisky. In association with Berry Bros, Boisdale promote their own vintages. Their 1991 Mortlach from Dufftown expressed the perfect subtle power of Speyside. Although ‘subtle’ is not the first word one would use about Laphroaig, the 1990 had a long, lingering range of tastes, going well beyond iodine, and could easily stand up to a Monte-cristo No. 4; by then, we were on the cigar terrace. In Gaelic legend, Tir an Og, the land of the blessed, was somewhere to the west of the Hebrides. Today, you can find it in SW1.


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