Alexander Armstrong Uncorked

Comedy actor Alexander Armstrong, of the much-lauded Armstrong & Miller, will be on our screens again this summer starring in a new BBC comedy drama called Mutual Friends. He shares his top tip for hangovers and why he doesn’t ‘get’ Burgundy with Fiona Sims

Alexander Armstrong So just how serious a wine buff are you?

I’m an enthusiast, I try very hard to remember the names. I suppose I started buying wine seriously at Cambridge. You could buy Smith-Haut-Lafitte at £11 a bottle, so I bought good wine regularly. I was also a member of the food and wine society, where we had great speakers; I loved the chap from Fonseca and I remember a particularly fantastic Veuve Clicquot vertical. We’d all start conscientiously writing notes, then by the fourth wine we’d be pissed.

What was the first really interesting bottle of wine you drank?

Muga Rioja. We used to live in a freezing old farmhouse in Northumberland and it warmed the cockles. Dad used to chuck all the red wine he brought from the cellar onto the Aga to warm it up a bit. I know red wine is horrid when it’s served too warm, but I loved it back then. Still do – the warmer the better, frankly.

Do you have a cellar, and if so, what’s in it?

I had one in my old flat but not in my new one, I have a 160-bottle Smeg fridge instead. I’m buying a house in the country though, which does have a cellar. At the moment I’ve got 200 cases stashed at Octavian Vaults. What’s in there? Lots of Sarget de Gruaud-Larose and Carruades de Lafite. And lots of Château Berliquet – I love claret. I’ve got a few bottles of Pichon Lalande in there, too. That’s gorgeous. But it’s not all claret. I’ve got some wines from the Douro; I love the reds from Ramos Pinto. I have lots of Old World whites, too; there’s a number of Meursaults, and a fair bit from Domaine Leflaive. I think my mates have finally got the message that when they come for supper they don’t bring me a bottle of Hardy’s.

Are many of your mates into wine?

My main wine-drinking mate is the portrait painter Johnny Yeo, the first person to paint Tony Blair while in office. He’s the knowledgeable version of me when it comes to wine. We love going to wine auctions together. And my brother. He’s a great wine enthusiast, and he’s been a huge influence on me. Whenever possible, I like to take him out and spoil him rotten. We’re a bit like a couple of lottery winners when we go out. The last time we went to Le Gavroche we started with a Vincent Girardin Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet, then had the most delicious Mouton Rothschild, and finished with a bottle of D’Yquem.

Any other restaurants where you particularly enjoy the wine list?

I judge a place instantly by its wine list. If a place is very swanky, all Grands Vins and massive mark-ups, you know it’s not for the love of wine, but for the custom. Places I love? Fino, Nobu, and I rather like Hakkasan. And I’m a huge fan of the Galvin brothers; wines from Madiran are a particular favourite.

Any other favourite wine regions?

Thanks to my good friend Matthew Jukes (wine writer and presenter), I’ve also really got to know New World wines – particularly Australia and South Africa. I went to South Africa two years ago with my wife, Hannah. We spent a long time in Franschhoek, staying at La Couronne. I already knew about Meerlust Rubicon and Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir, but I also discovered Waterford Chardonnay while I was there. It’s a fantastic drop. I’d like to explore Italy
next. I went to Positano for my honeymoon four years ago. I didn’t know a great deal about Italian wine before I went but I learned on the hoof. I fell in love with the wines from Angelo Gaja.

Where do you like to shop for wine, and what’s the most you’ve ever spent?

I buy from a private merchant called Caspar Bowes and a fair bit from Lay & Wheeler and Fine & Rare. For browsing, I go to Berry Bros & Rudd. Jukes advises me on what to buy from the New World – at the moment I’m drinking Rusden Black Guts Shiraz, which he introduced me to. I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than £500. I normally spend around £30 on a bottle of wine.

Any wines you loathe?

Ooh, yes. Woody Chardonnays are vile.

Do you have a guilty wine secret?

Opening posh bottles on my own. Though I can just drink half and Vac-u-Vin the rest, unless it’s really special.

Do you drink wine when you’re writing?

Not for my shows – it hinders me more than anything. But creative writing, absolutely. Only a glass or two, though.

What would you choose as your last meal on earth, where would it be, and what would you drink with it?

Well, first, I wouldn’t want to know that it was my last meal. Notting Hill butcher Lidgate’s does this amazing boeuf bourguignon pie. I would eat it at home with my wife, and my brother Dominic, and we would drink 1982 Pichon Lalande.

You’re the face of Pimm’s. Has that helped in your appreciation of drinks at all?

Do you know the best thing about Pimm’s for me is that it was absolutely our family drink when I was growing up? I’ve never told them that.

What’s your favourite cure for a hangover?

The only cure is another drink, as every fool knows. The best Sunday pre-lunch hangover cure is a fino and tonic with a couple of cubes of ice – more subtle than a smack round
the chops.

What has been your best wine moment?

We have something called the Montrachet Moment, or ‘MM’. It is summer, the kids are bathed and put to bed, dinner is in the oven, the sun is going down… and the light catches on the glass.

And your worst?

To this day I still don’t understand Burgundy. I remember going to a branch of Nicolas and buying any old shit. It’s a closed book to me. The second worst wine moment was cracking open a warm bottle of Veuve Clicquot.

Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Spring 2008

Comedy actor Alexander Armstrong, of the much-lauded Armstrong & Miller, will be on our screens again this summer starring in a new BBC comedy drama called Mutual Friends. He shares his top tip for hangovers and why he doesn’t ‘get’ Burgundy with Fiona Sims