Jonathan Ray

“Clays, Claret and Cognac Cruise 2019 review”

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Well, that’s a sight that will live with me for a long time, that of our esteemed business editor, Martin Vander Weyer, being knocked almost completely over by the ferocious recoil of an ancient and cacophonous blunderbuss. He was vainly trying to get to grips with the weapon in a doomed effort to pepper a sizeable balloon. The rubber sphere in question might only have bobbed a few short metres away on gloomy grey waters but it’s fair to say that never has a target been so safe from harm and never has a man been so profoundly – albeit temporarily – deafened.

We were aboard Thames Sailing Barge Will, moored up in the middle of the river at Thamesmead, just beyond the Thames Barrier. Here, under the hilarious but patient tutelage of shoot captain John Hargreaves, 40 or so hardy Spectator readers blasted merrily away at scores of clays with a pump action shotgun, an up-and-over, a side-by-side and said blunderbuss. All hail to Tom Chambers who won the coveted trophy of an engraved silver bullet-shaped hip flask for hitting the most – or, in truth, missing the fewest – clays.

This was the second of what is hoped will become an annual event, the Clays, Claret and Cognac Cruise, run by the Spectator in association with our wine merchant partner, Private Cellar, as represented by director Laura Taylor and Charlie Stanley-Evans, and wine importer/agent Mentzendorff, as represented by Anna Woodbridge.

The morning started with bacon rolls and coffee in the saloon of the Will, a handsome old thing launched in 1925 and which, along with its three sisters, was the largest sailing barge ever built. With its flat steel bottom and tall mainmast, it used to carry coal from the Humber down to the gasworks in Margate but has long since been refitted and used for private hire. There is a surprisingly spacious saloon down below with two comfortable cabins and a fine kitchen where a hot meal for 40 was conjured up.

After two hours’ shooting, we repaired below for the first of many drinks. We started with several glasses each of Langlois-Chateau Crémant de Loire, as fine a non-champagne fizz as you’ll find. A traditional method blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc which spends two years on the lees, it went down an absolute storm with readers who loved both its quality (the house is owned by Bollinger Champagne so they know what they’re about) and its modest price of just £14.50 a pop at Private Cellar.

We drank long and we drank deep as we listened to Martin Vander Weyer regale us with some of his celebrated – and very funny and very moving – poetry.

After a brief wine quiz won by Bob Young (hats off!) we moved on to lunch with a starter of onion tart washed down with the excellent Ashbourne Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay from South Africa. An easy-going wine of great charm, it’s produced by the inimitable Anthony Hamilton Russell in the Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth) Valley, Walker Bay. You might know AHR’s fabulous Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays too, to which this white is a delightfully gentle entry level introduction.

With a main course of chicken, mushrooms and wild rice we abandoned any sense of restraint and moved on to four – yes, four – clarets all from the same vintage served side by side, namely the 2014 Ch. Tayet (Bordeaux Supérieur), the 2014 Ch. Tour Baladoz (Grand Cru St Emilion), the 2014 Ch. Haut Breton Larigaudière (Margaux) all from magnum, and the delectable 2010 Ch. Tour Baladoz from double magnum.

Anthony Crameri from the châteaux discussed the wines with great eloquence and explained, too, about the beauty of large format bottles. We all agreed that magnums and beyond are the way to go. Just as a slowly cooked stew is tastier than that cooked in a rush, so slowly matured wine gains greater depth and character as it ages. (I know I’m stating the bleeding obvious but there’s more wine to less air in larger bottles and so slower the maturation.)

With blueberry cheesecake we enjoyed bottles of 2015 Vin de Constance, that extraordinary dessert wine from South Africa against which mighty Ch. Yquem now judges itself. A recreation of the wine – Constantia – that so beguiled the likes of Napoleon, Jane Austen, Dickens and Baudelaire, Vin de Constance is an exquisite, tongue-coatingly, marmaladey sweet wine made from Muscat de Frontignan, that just gets better with each successive vintage. Our first collective sip quite silenced the saloon.

The noise and laughter increased and our shirt buttons popped as we headed slowly back up river, past Woolwich Arsenal, the Old Royal Naval College and Queen’s House at Greenwich (which, seen from the river is surely the finest view in all London), Millwall Docks, Canary Wharf, Limehouse and Wapping Steps.

Finally, we clambered unsteadily (alarmingly so in some cases) back on deck, shot glasses of the non-pareil Delamain XO Pale & Dry Cognac in hand and toasted Old Father Thames as Tower Bridge opened wide, thus –rather marvellously – buggering up London’s Friday rush hour traffic just for us. A fine end to a fine day.

We had an absolute hoot. Do join us next year! To buy tickets for future events, head to the Spectator Shop.

Written byJonathan Ray

Jonathan Ray is the Spectator's wine editor.

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