Local wine merchant Mallek from Askewine offers his guide to the world of wines.
How long have you lived on the Askew Road?
Since April ‘93.
Where are your favourite haunts?
Laveli, Detour’s, Adam’s Café, The Monkey Temple, Louche. I enjoy being a part of the local community.
What brought you here?
I’m from Tunisia, but I studied in Algeria where I met my wife, and we came to London in 1990. Now we have two lovely boys, 17 and 14, and we all live above the shop.
How do you square selling alcohol with being Muslim?
I only drink halal wine! Only kidding. In Tunisia wine is second nature. My father used to sell wine. He would give my sister and me little cups to try, like the French give their children, to learn to respect the wine. Most people drink in Tunisia. Tunisia has more bars than London.
How did you get into the wine trade?
In 1990 I got a job with the off-licence on this (Askewine) site, which was sold to Victoria Wine which merged with Threshers and Wine Rack, and the whole lot went into administration in 2010, with huge redundancies, which was a disaster for a lot of people, but we finally managed to secure the lease and now it’s Askewine.
Wine is a daunting subject. To help our readers with a few basics, which wine is more popular, red or white?
In my experience, it’s usually 70:30, depending on the season. When it’s cold, it’s red: when it’s hot, it’s white, sometimes rosé, when it’s very hot. In France, they drink rosé all year round, but in England, only in summer.
Is red wine always made with red grapes and white wine with white grapes?
Not always. With Champagne for example, a white wine, the Pinot Noir grape, a black grape, is pressed gently to produce a clear juice.
I only drink halal wine!
Why are some reds dark red and some whites yellow?
The climate and grape variety. A Merlot or Malbec is darker than Pinot Noir or a Gamay. Some white wines are yellow because they’ve been aged longer in oak barrels.
What’s the thirstiest wine-drinking country?
France, but China now drinks a lot of wine, especially red – the Chinese believe red to be a lucky colour. I’ve also read that the Vatican City drinks more wine per head than anybody.
Which country makes most wine?
France or Italy. They compete. Several countries claim it. The Chinese are making a lot of wine now, even more than Australia.
Of the hundreds of grape varieties, which are the most popular?
Cabinet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay...
Do you encounter many wine snobs?
Several people have come into the shop and said, recommend a white wine, anything but Chardonnay. They think WAGs drink it but they don’t realize they’re saying no to Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé, Burgundy in general.
Why are some nations considered less desirable winemakers?
In the 80s, the UK market was bombarded by cheap German wines, like Liebfraumilch but, now, their Riesling wines are very good. They say the Germans keep the best for themselves. Valpolicella (Italian red) used to have a bad name, but Amarone, a wonderful wine, is made in the Val Policella region.
Where do you get your wines?
I have 36 suppliers but 60% of my wines come from four to five small importers. We’re lucky in London to have so much choice. In France, generally speaking, you can only buy French wine and only wine from the region you’re in.
How do you choose them?
In the wine profession there are wine agents, like actors’ agents. They come to me or I go to them, usually in London. With the help of wine experts whose opinion I trust, we put together a portfolio of 3-400 wines. It’s the tasting season right now. I leave the cheap stuff for the supermarkets but I aim for an affordable range, £8-15 a bottle.
What’s the most expensive wine you sell?
A 2010 Château Batailley for £50, a proper wine from the Médoc region.
Is a £50 bottle ten times better than a £5 bottle?
People should drink what they like. If they can afford a £50 bottle and they like it... A more interesting comparison is a £10 and £30 bottle. They’ll both be good, but it would be interesting to hold a blind tasting. Supply and demand sets the price. If it’s from somewhere famous that’s consistently good, it commands a premium but £30 bottle is not always three times better than £10 bottle.
When you go to a dinner party, what wine do you take your host?
If I don’t know what I’ll be eating, I take a Pinot Noir from New Zealand or a nice Burgundy.
Do you rate British wine?
British wine is amazing. It has a lot of potential, especially the sparkling wine, especially from Kent where the climate and chalky soil is very similar to the Champagne region.
Do you think the UK has a drinking problem?
What can I say? People like to enjoy themselves.
What’s the oddest beverage you’ve ever tasted?
There’s a new trend for natural wines, unfiltered so they’re cloudy. Some people call them hippy wines. They’ve become like a cult, with some producers only bottling them on certain days, during a particular lunar cycle, and some people only drinking them on certain days. I find some of the results – what can I say? – not to my taste.
What wine should people invest in or give as a significant present?
My favourite at the moment is an Italian red from Tuscany, Brunello di Montalcino. They’re making some amazing wines right now and it will keep.
If you weren’t in the wine trade, what would you do?
Sailing. I don’t sail now, but if I could... Perhaps it has something to do with growing up in a fishing port.
Do you relax with a glass of wine?
Very much so.
What’s the most memorable toast you’ve ever heard or made?
To my wife and children of course, but I’ll never forget the day we finally got the lease for this shop. We raised a glass or two that night.
Cheers, Mallek. It’s been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds Sept 2015