A decent beer is a wonderful thing but perhaps not a serious enough libation to salute every shoot day, says Gabriel Stone. So which are the best wines to uncork for lunch?
For some, lunch matters little. But for many the hospitality element can make or break the day. Opt for quality rather than quantity when it comes to the best shoot day wine, advises Gabriel Stone, with recommendations for the merchants with shoot day in mind.
For more advice on how to host to best shoot day lunch, read best shoot lunch. Is yours up to scratch?
BEST SHOOT DAY WINE
Spare a thought for your shoot host. The wind is gusting in an unhelpful direction for the first drive, happy hikers are merrily instagramming in the game cover and one of the guns has left his boots at home. The fine detail of lunchtime refreshment may be barely more than a scribbled footnote on the tattered to-do list. For some it matters little. After all, anything more substantial than a pork pie and beer consumed on the vehicle tailgate is surely distracting from the main focus of the day. For others, however, especially sociable types who have paid a not inconsiderable sum to be there, the hospitality element can make or break the day.
That’s certainly the view at Holland & Holland, the clientele of which, whether buying exquisite guns or honing their technique at the firm’s own shooting ground, expect to be well looked after. “Lunch is the pivotal part of the shoot day,” insists Sean Arthur, the company’s food and beverage manager. “That period to get a warm meal in before continuing helps boost morale and focus for the afternoon, and sets the tone for a successful day, especially when the weather is miserable.”
While the sky seems to be the limit at the luxury end of the shooting spectrum, with tales of Michelin-starred spreads washed down by first-growth claret, most shooting stalwarts agree that it’s perfectly possible to look after your guests well on a rather tighter budget.
“To my mind, a shoot lunch is all about thought,” sums up Mark Firth, who now runs his own sporting agency after co-founding Roxtons. “You can do anything you like as long as you show you care,” he insists, warning: “There’s nothing worse than supermarket malbec on the table; it just looks awful.” In Firth’s view, “the wine shouldn’t cost less than £15”.
Not only is this sum not excessive in the wider context of a shoot day but lunchtime consumption tends to be fairly modest. Whether for health reasons, due to drink-driving laws or simply a desire to shoot straight after lunch, a growing number of guns shy off alcoholic drinks altogether. Their alternative refreshment options merit separate consideration but, overall, the priority should be quality over quantity. Sean Arthur advocates “a small glass of something special” as the best approach.
One host who is highly conscious of the balance between generosity and moderation is Angus Barnes, whose family business, Loyton, manages six testing, scenic Exmoor shoots as well as hosting in style at Loyton Lodge. “In reality, wine consumption is limited for lunches so it is better to serve wine of a sufficiently high quality befitting the day’s sport,” he suggests. With three in-house chefs, Loyton is clearly a place that looks after its guests as diligently as its birds. “The hospitality is such an important part of the overall package,” confirms Barnes. “Both the food and wine have to be excellent.” A Loyton lunch is likely to kick off with “good white burgundy, perhaps a St Aubin or sometimes Puligny”, before some serious red bordeaux comes out to wash down the main course. “Second growth would be ideal,” says Barnes temptingly.
For a busy host, the simplest route to satisfaction, especially if wine is not your specialist subject, is to put yourself in the hands of a good wine merchant. A striking number of these, especially in rural areas, will be keen shots themselves so understand exactly what’s required. While rarely a match for supermarkets at the very cheapest end of the spectrum, once you hit the £15 a bottle mark their expertise should shine through.
Even the smallest outfit is likely to be able to deliver anywhere in the country. Some, such as fourth generation Shropshire family business Tanners, has also cultivated particularly deep roots with local shoots. “We sell a lot of what you might call ‘English gentleman’s claret’,” remarks chairman James Tanner. “Things like Cissac, Batailley, Angludet and Argadens do well.” On the burgundy front it is also the “reasonable value” rather than flashy names that prove popular, with Tanner flagging up Côte de Beaune appellations such as Santenay, Auxey-Duresses and Chorey-lès-Beaune as rewarding hunting grounds.
For James Goodhart, founder of Bon Coeur Fine Wines in the heart of North Yorkshire’s grouse-moor country, it is a question of style as much as price. When it comes to bordeaux, “we sell a lot of the ’07 and ’11 vintages because they’re slightly lighter – you don’t want anything too heavy,” he explains.
Whatever shoot hosts choose to pour, that thoughtfulness needs to extend to how the wine is served. “Decent glassware helps and it’s not expensive anymore,” notes Goodhart. Temperature is also key, especially in the depths of winter.
“There’s almost nothing worse than cold claret,” shudders Dan Jago, whose current role as chairman and CEO of James Purdey & Sons was preceded by several decades in the wine trade, most recently at the helm of historic London merchant Berry Brothers & Rudd. Despite this tough exposure to some of the finest wines and shooting available, Jago is reassuringly down to earth about the lunch wine budget, loyally recommending his former employer’s own-label Good Ordinary Claret, currently on the shelf at a modest £11.95. “Open it an hour before, decant it and everyone will drink it very happily,” he promises.
During dark December and January days, shooting through can make the best use of daylight. What’s more, with time pressure eased and guns safely away, this format plays into the hands of those who like to take lunch seriously. Certainly Laura Taylor, director of Cambridgeshire-based merchant Private Cellar, describes shooting through as “a game changer in terms of the wine you serve”. While citing “house claret at £12 to £20 a bottle” as the go-to option for most shoot lunches, she notes: “Those that shoot through normally enjoy smarter wines in a more relaxed atmosphere.”
Want to treat your guests to an even more generous bottle? Then get everyone together for a sumptuous dinner the night before the shoot, when time is gloriously elastic and, with luck, no one has to drive anywhere afterwards. That’s the moment to pull out the grand cru burgundy for leisurely contemplation.
In an era when the world of wine has never been of higher quality, more readily available and geographically diverse, it seems rather contrary that British shoot lunch habits remain so fixated on bordeaux and burgundy. Even if people are shopping more adventurously than they were 30 years ago, evidence suggests that on a shoot day they prefer to leave that delicious Austrian Blaufränkisch on the wine rack and play it safe.
“People do quite like the classics,” confirms Jamie Strutt, sales director at London merchant Goedhuis. “They think they’re being looked after and given something special.” For the same reason, Strutt points to the appeal of serving not just a familiar region but a reassuringly familiar label. “Names like Langoa-Barton, that everyone’s heard of,” he suggests.
Although few would be churlish enough to turn down a glass of classed growth claret, lesser-known regions often bring the advantage of superior bang for buck, especially where budgets are tight. Strutt points to “a lot more interest” in Italian options such as Barolo or Tuscan wines, while Tanner flags up good-quality Rioja as “massively” popular for shoot lunches, as well as reporting buoyant sales of the company’s own-label Douro red.
One region that arguably deserves more of a look in is the southern Rhône, its generous grenache-based wines offering just the sort of gently warming spice that’s required on a cold day. Despite the region being “very out of vogue”, according to Strutt, he agrees Rhône wines can shine on a shoot day, saying: “When it’s cold outside and you’ve got a casserole, something like a Gigondas works perfectly and offers a lot of value for money in the bottle.”
For those whose label appreciation leans towards the aesthetic rather than ostentatious, it’s hard to beat the elegant woodcock motif that adorns the bottles of Rhône producer Domaine de la Mordorée. Even better, the wine inside is a stylish match for hearty winter fare and anyone who appreciates a matched pair both on and off the field can take advantage of the domaine’s satisfyingly full-bodied white.
Jago is another enthusiastic Rhône advocate, picking out Gigondas producer Château de Saint Cosme as a source of “great value” and “completely delicious” refreshment. He admits to a penchant for the Northern Rhône and its savoury, Syrah-based, age-worthy treats. Here, as indeed with most serious reds, Jago recommends planning ahead to maximise enjoyment. “The best Rhône needs a little bit of maturity to soften up,” he notes, revealing that his own cellar contains patiently maturing bottles and magnums of Alain Graillot’s Crozes-Hermitage 2016 to serve lucky shooting friends in a couple of years’ time.
Shoot hospitality, it turns out, is no different to looking after guests in any other scenario. Definitions of good value can vary wildly but showing you care is a universal way to charm any guest.
One aspect of shoot-day refreshment that is being gently nudged by new trends is elevenses. Panic not, sloe gin still holds its own, but where something (whisper it) more refined is called for then there are signs that champagne is being elbowed aside by English sparkling wine.
Nestled in the South Downs, Exton Park Vineyard is not only a prime example of how good these wines can be but also perfectly positioned to supply local Hampshire shoots. It even has a sister shoot next door, Warnford, where the Exton Park team take a day each year. The producer’s sales and marketing director Kit Ellen tracks a notable shift in just the past couple of years towards “definite demand for a switch to English wine at elevenses”. In his view, it makes sense. “A lot of shooting people are landowners so there’s a synergy there,” explains Ellen. “Also, shooting is very, very English, there’s a sense of patriotism there and people are now seeing there’s good stuff on their doorstep.”
MERCHANTS WITH SHOOT DAY IN MIND
Bon Coeur Fine Wines: North Yorkshire based and perfectly positioned for the grouse moors just a short detour off the A1. The company is an ambassador for The Country Food Trust and founder James Goodhart, a keen shot himself, is on the local GWCT committee.
Call 01325 776446; bcfw.co.uk
Goedhuis: Renowned as a burgundy and bordeaux specialist, Goedhuis is one of London’s most highly regarded, affable fine wine merchants. Chairman Johnny Goedhuis and sales director Jamie Strutt are both fluent in wine and shooting chat.
Call 020 7793 7900; goedhuis.com
Private Cellar: Cambridgeshire-based with satellite offices across the south, Private Cellar is an ambassador for The Country Food Trust. While the team’s wine expertise goes without saying, you’ll be hard pressed to talk to someone here who doesn’t shoot or pick up.
Call 01353 721999; privatecellar.co.uk
Savage Selection: This Cotswold merchant is renowned for rigorous quality focused on small growers both on and off the beaten track. Now more likely to be found shooting, in his youth Mark Savage hunted various beagle packs.
Call 01451 860896; savageselection.co.uk
Tanners: The go-to merchant for shoots on the Welsh Marches, with its flagship store in Shrewsbury, Tanners is an active supporter of the GWCT, Countryside Alliance, BASC and Salmon & Trout Conservation, while chairman James Tanner is vice-chair of the South Shropshire Hunt.
Call 01743 234500; tanners-wines.co.uk
The Wine Society: Run as a co-operative for almost 150 years, this merchant is well placed to offer members excellent value at all budgets. Its classically presented own label ‘Society’ and ‘Exhibition’ ranges are the insider’s route to top producers’ fruit at less flashy prices.
Call 01438 741177; thewinesociety.com
Yapp Brothers: If France and the Rhône especially float your boat then look no further than this Wiltshire specialist, whose Mere premises offer welcome respite from that notoriously slow slog south-west on the A303. The website helpfully offers no fewer than 28 recommended matches for game.
Call 01747 860423; yapp.co.uk