writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: July 2016

Wine Tourism at the edge: hunting the Rufete in northern Spain

Describing my day job as Chief Ninja in the Council’s Democratic Services Black Ops Division, as I sometimes do, probably gives it a veneer of glamour that’s slightly misleading, if I were being honest. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy it, and try to give 100%. But like most people, it’s not, perhaps, the role in life that I lay awake dreaming of, night after night, in those heady teenage years when anything seemed possible and the world, as Hilda Ogden used to say, was my lobster, or at least seemed that way.

So when you meet, in the same day, three people that love their job so much it amounts to a passion, that’s a special day (and, come to think of it, a fourth the next day, but we’ll come to him presently). We all want to live the dream, right?

Let me say straight off the bat we’re not wine experts. Nor are we wine snobs: we know what we like, and we buy it, with a bit of research and intelligent enquiry, from supermarkets and wine merchants alike. And then we drink it. But, in the beautiful northern Spanish city of Salamanca for a few days with family, a day trip to a winery sounded just like the thing, especially as we’d stayed in town before, and done the centre, at least, on foot.

They say that we live in the Age of Peak Stuff: that in fact, from now on, the ease of getting anything delivered to your door (indeed, in the near future, 3D printed on your own machine) means that consumer goods have lost their value, in most senses; besides, much of what we used to need big clunky amounts of space for – films, music, books – have been digitized. What we increasingly crave instead, so they say, is experiences: that perfect holiday; that opening chord in the first gig of the music festival; that moment when you feel your stomach pass your eyeballs in the other direction as the bungee snaps you upwards; and so on, according to taste and vertigo levels.

In that context, what Slow Wines offer is the future. Helena and Pierre are clearly passionate (that word again) about their business, and their wine: the website tells you they can take you on a tour of most of the major wine regions of Spain. How they manage to do that, out of a small office down the side of the cathedral in Salamanca, presumably involves a lot of travelling and wrangling, and/or local contacts. However, when we got in touch, we were looking for something closer to home for them. A couple of days’ short notice, a few emails back and forth, and we had booked ourselves on a day out to Sierra de Salamanca, Spain’s newest Denominacion de Origen.

The experience consisted of three parts: a visit to a winery, a village, and a Dominican sanctuary. When Pierre later asked for our feedback, our only criticism was that the winery came first: but maybe that was just our Scots Presbyterian deferred-gratification wiring at work. An hour’s drive into the mountains took us to Cambrico, which might just possibly be the best winery in the world.


Let me explain. Anyone that’s ever read a wine merchant’s catalogue, or even a supermarket flyer about the latest plonk they’re trying to shift for Christmas, will know the kind of script they push at you. Hand-harvested grapes, tiny parcels of ancient vines, high in the mountains where the wild boar roams and the fennel grows free among the vines. A local varietal, scarcely known till now, producing flavours long thought lost in the mists – or myths – of the valley below.

Well, Cambrico is all of these things, quite literally. The wild boar didn’t pop out of the undergrowth and say hello, but the hunting signs at the side of the road on the way up the mountain made it clear jabali was somewhere about, and presumably feeling pretty feisty, too. As for the tiny parcels/hand-harvested/growing among the wild fennel schtick goes, well, it’s not just a schtick. Here’s a couple of other pictures:

100_2911 100_2912 100_2913 100_2915Seriously. I have broken off the stem of the wild fennel and smelt its tart aniseed juices myself. My leg still bears the scar from a bramble stem that reached out into the path and grabbed me. See those trees? The ones that aren’t wild olives are mostly different species of oak, which the vineyard lets grow, presumably to help fatten and flavour the passing wild boar. Think it looks like a scrubby hillside with a random collection of plant life on it? That’s because it is… well, not quite random. The vines are grown organically, on the unique combination of Cambrian-period slate and granite geology that predominates in this area. Some of the plants – such as a variety of Salvia – are grown to be harvested for natural insecticide; others go into a green manure to nourish the vines that grow amongst them.

As for the little known grape varietal: that’s the Rufete, only found in its red version in these here mountains and in limited areas across the border in Portugal. The white Rufete, we were told, is so rare they’re still trying to analyse its genetic inheritance.

We were inducted into the mysteries of the Rufete by Bosi, our guide for the tour. In an example of the type of symbiotic, co-dependent relationship plants and people have in the area, he works for the owner of Cambrico some of the time, the remainder being expended on his own vines. An engaging, charismatic guy, he was really the star of the show, telling us (with the help of Helena and Pierre’s translations) about the vineyard and its working methods, getting right down among the vines and showing us how, given the fact the varietals are all planted higgledy-piggledy together on the slopes, the pickers are expected to tell the difference between the Tempranillo, Garnacha and Rufete plants (crucial because they’re all harvested at different times) by the leaves, and the grape size and colouration.

It was a million miles away from the slick, video-based presentations of the bigger wineries we’ve been to, where the vineyards themselves, shimmering in the distance, are serried monovarietal ranks of industrial-scale product, to be shifted and sold by the tankerful. Instead, one man in a dusty van had brought us to a hillside which, you felt, was about as close to the natural state you could get in our modern times. The grapes were hand-harvested, by the way, in baskets that held no more than 10kg of grapes at a time: all the better to avoid them being bruised, or crushed too soon.

Back at the winery itself, of course, modern production methods came into play. This is a business, after all, not some sort of heritage project: although even here, the emphasis was on careful treatment almost amounting to veneration of the sacred must that wine, ultimately, comes from. Everything was gravity-fed, to avoid pumps spoiling the holy juice:

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Finally, we got to taste the stuff! With a simple accompaniment of bread and jamon (what else?) we tried, first, a younger wine, and then 575 Uvas, named to reflect the amount of grapes it goes to produce a single bottle of wine (mas o menos, as Bosi said with a smile). Standing in the cool of the winery, looking out onto the sun baking the terrace beyond, it was very easy to believe that this was the best wine we’d ever tasted, from the best winery in the world:

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Cambrico, apparently, exports all over the place, its biggest buyer being Kazakhstan, for some reason. A few precious cases are reportedly being shipped off to England at the moment, but for Scottish readers, there’s only one bottle of 575 Uvas in the country at the moment. And it’s got our name on it.

After a good lunch in a nearby village (in Spain, even undistinguished-looking local caffs can serve up things like carillas de cerdo (pig’s cheeks, cooked in a red wine sauce) that are every bit as good as the fancied-up version you’d get in a top restaurant in Madrid) we set off for our second destination: the village of La Alberca.

Pierre told me he’d been in two minds about taking us here as part of the tour, and I saw why. La Alberca is a stunning village high in the Sierra (half-timbered, Elizabethan stylee houses deep in the Spanish mountains – who knew?) that’s just on the cusp of being spoiled by too much tourism. However, the village was so pretty we felt he’d made the right call:

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After a cold drink, we set off for the last port of call: the Peña de Francia (the French Peak), and its Dominican sanctuary. Apart from the religious buildings (although looking a bit like a set of army barracks, the sanctuary did, somehow, exude a sense of, well, sanctuary) the main attraction of the place was its stunning views over the surrounding mountainous region, and beyond. A viewpoint, with metal pointers like gunsights for the main places of interest, was very photogenic:

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After the intensity of the wine tour, and the bustle of La Alberca, the visit to Peña de Francia was a strangely tranquil end to our day. I would totally recommend any wine tour by Slow Wines: these guys are, as I say, completely immersed in their subject, and their enthusiasm and passion shone through. But above all you must go to Cambrico, and meet Bosi. Even if you’re pretty much condemned by reason of economics and geography to drink supermarket wines mostly, the memory of that hillside will stay with you for a long time.

And the fourth apasionado? We asked Pierre to recommend us a bar in Salamanca that specialised in wine, and he told us three. The best of these was, by some way, Doctrinos (Calle Doctrinos, 3) where the owner took particular care of us, recommending wines from the extensive list, giving us free tasters first, and producing excellent tapas to boot. He seemed far more concerned about us enjoying the wine than anything else: and he even had 575 Uvas on the list. Just a great, traditional style, Castilian taberna that we’ll definitely be paying another visit or two to when we’re back in Salamanca.

Oh, yes. We will be back.


Photos by Alison Ferguson










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Never Forget Who We Are

I first wrote this after watching a news item about a bunch of moronic English football fans using the Brexit vote as an excuse to go on the rampage in France, shouting xenophobic slogans as they went. However, the savage killing yesterday of an elderly priest in a place holy to followers of that religion made me realise the words go beyond the original ‘inspiration.’

Key to getting the sense of the words, though, was to back it with music that conveyed the emotion I felt. I performed it live at Blind Poetics earlier this month with the Mogwai track that had, equally, inspired it: the words, their tempo, and the overall timing, were designed to be fitted to the music. As I said on the night, the words aren’t meant to promote a particular political view: you can interpret the ‘we’ any way you want.

I’m reluctant to record a spoken word version on Soundcloud of this, because it’s using the music without permission. So, instead, here’s a bit of audience participation for you: click on the track, Special N, and read the words aloud, slowly, starting about 18 seconds in when the cello hits the bottom note for the first time. Don’t just read it in your head: we always read quicker internally than we do aloud, so you’ll be finished before the music’s half done.

Probably best to do it when you’re on your own though, rather than on the train. Folk might look at you funny.



Never Forget

When the hatred is high, and injustice is flowing

We must never forget who we are.

When the lies, and the fear, and the prejudice is growing,

We must never forget who we are.


We are very far from perfect, and we must keep going forward

But we are better than this. We must never forget who we are.


We have come a long way, out of shadows, out of ignorance,

Out of our own prejudice and unreason

But we must never forget who we are.


For we have become more tolerant, we have become more peaceful

We have welcomed our neighbours; we have sheltered strangers

We must never forget who we are.


And though it feels like night has fallen, there is a light

Shining within us, enlightenment in the darkness;

We have a history of this

We must never forget who we are.


Where we have reached out, and helped, and stood for

Fairness, equality, freedom and brotherhood

We must never forget who we are.


Where tolerance and understanding have lost their currency,

Where scoundrels wrap themselves in flags, wolves in sheep’s clothing

We must never forget who we are.


We are very far from perfect, and we must keep going forward

But we are better than this. We must never forget who we are.


We have come a long way, out of shadows, out of ignorance,

Out of our own prejudice and unreason

But we must never forget who we are.


For we have become more tolerant, we have become more peaceful

We have welcomed our neighbours; we have sheltered strangers

We must never forget who we are.


And though it feels like night has fallen, there is a light

Shining within us, enlightenment in the darkness;

We have a history of this

We must never forget who we are.


When our values, our beliefs,

when everything we hold dear is under threat,

We must never forget who we are.


Where there are refugees, where there are dispossessed,

Where there is shelter to be given,

Where there are children of every nation crying,

We must never forget who we are.


And where we believe we are in the early years of a better nation,

We must never forget who we are.


For if the eyes of the world are on us,

And we want to look them in the eye,

We must never forget who we are.



As Ithers See Us

I suppose I could do this any time, but it seems a particularly odd angle to be viewing recent UK events sitting in a cafe in Salamanca, in the Castilian heart of Spain’s heartland. Like Burns said, ‘Oh would some power the giftie gie us/tae see oursels as ithers see us.’

I make no comment, of course, on the political viewpoint presented in this article:  but it’s interesting to see British politics refracted through the lens of another country’s media (El Pais is a major, slightly left-leaning, Spanish daily). The article’s author is John Carlin, who Wikipedia tells me is half-Scottish, half-Spanish, and has spent his career on both sides of the Hispano- and Anglo-phone world, having been a contributor to El Pais since 1998.

Translated fast and loose, for style rather than pinpoint accuracy: but happy as always to take corrections where I’ve gone too far off-piste.

18th July, 2016

The New British Dictatorship

Theresa May’s Conservative Government has the way clear to do exactly as it pleases

‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold….’

WB Yeats, The Second Coming

You’re afraid to find out what’s happening in the world at the moment. Put the radio on, glance at a mobile screen, the paper or the television and we see that the Brexiteers won, there’s been a terrorist attack in Nice and a military coup in Turkey (1); every day the polls bring more and more credence to the idea of Donald Trump becoming President of the United States.  Newsflash – here’s the latest: the United Kingdom has turned into a one party state.

Yes: the one time exemplar of parliamentary democracy in Britain is no longer so exemplary. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, is the head of a rightist government with no opposition. The monopoly of power it holds is reminiscent of that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, or, in the time of Jose Lopez Portillo, of the PRI in Mexico. It’s the opposite of what we see in the young Spanish democracy, a model of multi-party politics (with all the frustrations it creates)(2) in comparison to the most recent version of the ancient Britannic version.

May’s Conservative Government has the way clear to do exactly as it pleases. She has just named the three stooges charged, as ministers, with the most important issue her Government faces: to negotiate the new economic and political terms between the UK and the EU post-Brexit. But the Labour Party, who came second in last year’s elections, hasn’t said a peep. Its members are dedicating all their energy to a fratricidal conflict which threatens to end with the Left out of government for a generation or more.

If the UK is, in general, giving the world an object lesson in how not to govern a country, the labour movement is playing out a farce which should serve as a warning to those in Europe and further afield who think left-wing policies are the solution to growing inequality in a rampant capitalist system, incapable of delivering its eternal promise that prosperity higher up will filter down to those beneath.

The British Left’s problem is not new. In their efforts to be at peace with each other, its supporters forget the practical necessity of delivering a convincing message to the electorate. The particular problem for Labour currently is its messenger, Jeremy Corbyn, party leader since last September. Corbyn is, from all angles, a good man, honest, and irredeemably faithful to his socialist ideals. His weak point is that he opposes, but doesn’t propose: he is against many things, but no one knows what he’s in favour of. For that reason, and because he is also greyer than the London sky, 80% of Labour MPs have said that he is chronically incapable of mounting an effective opposition to the Conservative Government, far less win a General Election.

In 2014, the party changed their leadership election rules, moulding them to the principle of direct democracy which some followers had converted to thanks, in no small part, to the notion promoted with evangelistic zeal on social media that that everyone’s opinions are equally valid, and that the ‘experts,’ as one of the pro-Brexit Conservative leaders said during the campaign, had nothing to teach us. Previously, the votes of the MPs were decisive in the leadership election. Now an MP’s vote counts the same as anyone else’s. The change was to give everyone’s vote an equal weight: to be member you had only to pay £3, currently €3.58.

Three quarters of paid up members are middle class: more than a half have a university degree. They do not offer a true image of the class which Labour, founded in the union movement, is supposed to represent. They are more likely to be Guardian readers, more prosperous than average, highly educated, and full of desire to atone for their guilt at their good fortune. Those were the people who, by a huge margin, chose Corbyn last September, the Labour leadership candidate who represented to the Left the most pure and without sin.

Corbyn, who detests the electoral pragmatism of Tony Blair more than the Tories themselves, is all heart. No one celebrated Corbyn’s victory more than a Guardian journalist who has, now, changed his mind: Seumas Milne continues to write for the newspaper, but is now the Labour Party’s Director of Strategy and Communication. A version in caricature of the typical Guardian reader, Milne comes from a rich family, went to one of the most exclusive private schools in England, studied at Oxford, and currently lives in a house worth €2.5m on the edge of London.

A Guardian columnist published a portrait of Milne this weekend. He recalled that Milne has always been a fervent anti-imperialist, but only as regards US imperialism. Russian Soviet imperialism was another matter. ‘He says he’s a socialist, but he kneels down and doffs his cap to the capitalist kleptocracy of the Putin regime, the columnist wrote. ‘He defended the Communist one party state of Stalin, but now he’s converting Britain into a Tory one party state.’

Of course, Milne, like Corbyn, is an admirer of Chavez’s Venezuela, the disasters of which he hasn’t seen any need to distance himself from. Nor have the majority of party members seen any need to distance themselves from Corbyn, even though he has shown no capacity to inspire the same idolatry amongst the working classes he says he represents. The proof was that the most militant of them voted for Brexit in the referendum with Nigel Farage, leader until recently of the far right party UKIP, than with Corbyn, who favoured remaining in the EU.

Today, the majority of Labour MPs are terrified that they will lose their seats in the next election. For that reason, but also to avoid the only opposition to the Tories being UKIP, they have called for Corbyn to stand down. Corbyn, described by his rivals as a leader of protest, not of government, has refused to do so.

There will soon be further internal Labour Party elections. Thanks to the ideological fortitude of its members, there is every indication that Corbyn will win. No one will celebrate more than Theresa May and the other caudillos of the new Conservative Dictatorship.


(1) written before the coup failed. At least at the time of this translation. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

(2) For a long time a two-party system between the PP (centre right) and PSOE (centre left), Spanish politics seems to have entered a fractured phase with the 2015 election creating no overall majority, and the June 2016 elections still leaving no party with an overall majority between the PP, PSOE, Ciudadanos (centre-left) and Podemos (left-wing, anti-austerity) being the main players, with further regional parties having a small number of seats. The PP’s Mariano Rajoy remains Prime Minister.









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