Thursday, 13 September 2018

The price of Penguin Sands

How low you were thinking of sinking?  On the basis of “how low can you go?”, I can report that this, an actual wine, containing actual alcohol, is being sold for under £4 a bottle, via the lowest shelf at Sainsbury’s.

I have no idea how the finances of this work out. CJ gave up even the £5 pricepoint a few years back. I am not employed by KPMG, PWC or any of those other financial acronyms; the only thing I sometimes have to account for is my whereabouts. But I see that £2.16 of a bottle’s price goes straight to the Chancellor in Excise Duty, along with some 80p in VAT, leaving only about a pound here to cover shipping, bottling, profit – and a few pence worth of wine. So let’s look at it that way. Here is South African wine probably costing less than 35p a bottle. 

Presumably to reassure us, the marketing department seem to be relying on the established tropes of New World wine. First, it’s named after an animal. People love animals and, for a wine brand, an animal need have no discernible connection to wine. Frog, dog, eagle, beagle, black cat, fat cat, moose, goose… penguin?

I believe that when a penguin is underwater, it is a smooth, sleek missile of an animal. It goes in for the krill. 

But that’s not the image in my mind. What's in my mind is a creature swaggering across the land, appendages hanging at its sides like a hooligan ready to fight. And fight they will.

Penguins look as if they’re carrying a bit too much timber around the old waistline, which let’s face it is a concern of many a wine-drinker. And hooligan. And they waddle from side to side, slipping occasionally on ice, and looking sort of…to be honest…drunk.

Is that image of unstable, fighting fatboys appropriate to marketing a wine? Well, at £3.95 a bottle…

Anyway, to develop its name further, they’ve gone for the clich√© of an attractive location. Every place on a New World wine label is a bay or a cove, a creek or a river, a point or a leap. Rarely an estuary, basin or canal.

To create your appealing New World wine name, you take an animal from column one, and attach an attractive topographical location from column two. Frog Cove. Moose Creek. Dog Point. Goose Bay. (Spoiler: at least one of those wines actually exists.)

And yes, there is an attractive, sandy beach in South Africa with penguins. From a distance the penguins look just like people, swaggering across the sand, deciding which bit to occupy, and telling their offspring that it’s too soon for an ice cream. Lovely. This image distracts attention from the fact that Penguin Sands is actually bottled in the somewhat more prosaic and brownfield location of Elton, Cheshire.

What else do the marketeers put on their label? Well, something which hints at quality without any potentially disputable detail. Reserve. Premier. Classic. In this case they’ve plumped for Exclusive, for those who feel it’s a positive when something is sold only by Sainsbury’s.

And also the words BOLD AND ROBUST, which on a cheap Shiraz in block capitals reads somewhere between a challenge, a warning and a threat. Hang on to your hat, and buckle your seat belt. The tyres felt a little splashy on the way over here.

Like a cuckolded penguin, it comes out fighting. Behind the threatening colour of an old contusion lurks an aggressive, bitter, septic flavour, which pulls your palate tight and coagulates around your gums. It gets more palatable after half a glass as your mouth surrenders, but although it gets easier to swallow, it continues to kick up through your nose. Notes of Airwick and Copydex. It pulls a little to the right.

Barring abject penury, there is no reason to ever return to Penguin Sands, but it does prove that, even given our punitive Duty and Tax regime, it is still possible to produce a bottle of actual wine for £3.95. Like Dr Johnson’s dog walking on its hind legs, it is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.


Thursday, 6 September 2018


Q: So here we are, back after weeks of travelling around by boat and by car and what have we learned?

A: There are a hell of a lot of vineyards in France

Q: ?

A: Well, yes, that's it. I am overwhelmed by the vineyards. I cannot believe there is so much demand for wine, not even in France. We might as well be washing our shirts in wine or rust-proofing our bicycles with it, so much of this part of the planet appears to be dedicated to its production.

So then the question becomes, how do these vineyards make money, given that there are so many thousands and thousands of them? This has been bugging me for a while. Down in the south-east, Ventoux, region, many of the vineyards are made up of quite small parcels of land, adorably set among rolling hills and steep mountain ranges, interspersed with orchards and olive groves, the vines often playfully untidy, the earth between them sometimes bare and conscientiously tilled, sometimes grassed over, sometimes completely covered in weeds. It's outrageously pictuesque, but does it pay? It looks so inefficient. Especially when contrasted with the places on offer in the other bit of France we quartered, including (if I remember right) Lussac-St Emilion and Puisseguin-St Emilion, not that we actually drank any of these, but anyway.

Unlike the Ventoux plots, these are huge, incredibly orderly, hectare after hectare of vines razored into perfect conformity, no stragglers, no odds and ends, no weeds, just regimented plants of uniform height and character marching into the distance, where, presumably, an equally rectilinear ch√Ęteau sits counting the proceeds. It's the difference between Beijing and Bath. All right, Ventoux is a smallish name in French wines, Bordeaux is an industry, but Ventoux growers like to make a profit as much as anyone else. To put it another way: how big does a vineyard have to be, in order to survive?

Evidently a huge amount depends on exactly where you are, how highly-prized your region is, how mature the vines are, what subsidies are available, how easy it is to strip-mine the terrain of its grapes using modern equipment, how easy it is to hire people at key times of the year and so on. And this is before you even get to the terrifying imponderables of weather, disease, infestation, fashionability. I know this. But on the other hand, it doesn't stop me Googling How big does a vineyard need to be?

Turns out this is a question asked at least once every day, sometimes more. There are scores of answers, many of them aimed with full finger-wagging severity at well-heeled semi-retirees who fancy their chances at winemaking while utterly overlooking the downside. A rough count suggests that a decent-sized holding in France or Italy is about 8 hectares, going down to 4 if the vines are good and you can get along on a smallish profit. The average holding in France is 10.5 hectares; the average price of land (excluding the Champagne region, which is so far off the scale it distorts the results) is about 60,000, but you can get something sensible in a non-chic part of the country for 12,000 or less.

Clearly, you can make money out of a single French hectare if it's fair quality and productive; whether you simply harvest the biggest possible tonnage of raw grapes and send them to the local co-operative or press and bottle the product yourself is another issue. Elsewhere, the economies of production are such that whatever the size of the holding, you might very well cut off all the grape clusters except for one, perfect, cluster per vine, devote the whole season to bringing on that bunch of grapes and then turn it into a fabulously high-end wine whose scarcity you have gone miles out of your way to secure.

Our pals with their little piece of heaven in the Ventoux have established a tiny vineyard of about half a hectare and I have no idea which way they plan to go; nor, indeed, have they, given the youthfulness of the vines and the bother of harvesting. Equally, I could plant a vineyard in our back garden, do all the work by hand and possibly make a couple of quid, if it wasn't in London, north-facing and there wasn't a huge tree right in the middle of the plot. Still. It's something to think about, now that autumn's approaching. And I might even get an EU grant!


Thursday, 30 August 2018

Back on tracks – fine wine on a train

There is no doubt that rail travel has let us all down. And among the weary complaints about delays, overcrowding and ticket prices, let us not forget the sad decline in comestibles. The three-course meal has given way to “snacks and hot drinks”; the dining car has given way to the trolley; and the proper bottle of wine has given way to the single-serving miniature.

The inestimable Nick Lezard wrote recently that in order to get through the journey from Edinburgh to London, “I have to stun myself with four of those tiny bottles of barely acceptable Shiraz/Cabernet that get sold on Virgin trains.”

It’s not good enough! Where are the white tablecloths, the silver service, the wine waiters? Where, indeed, the bottle of decent claret? Can nothing be done to restore the former splendour of travel by rail?

Well… fortunately for us all, Berry Bros & Rudd, Wine Merchants to Her Majesty the Queen, are trialling wine sales in London Bridge station. They are offering a range of wines, up to more than £40 a bottle – proper, serious wines of a calibre which might, at one time, have accompanied a meal in a dining car. Her Majesty may remember such things.

There will be those who point out that this London Bridge store also has gift bags available, suggesting that customers might be buying a last-minute bottle to take to a party. Others will observe that the same station outlet sells convenience ready-meals, to be heated up at home, which a bottle of wine might be taken back to accompany.

Quiet, I say. Nothing of the sort. It is clear to me that Berry Bros, drawing upon their splendid pre-Beeching heritage, are simply providing a decent bottle of wine which we can drink on a train, in order to recapture the splendour of rail travel past.

It could be difficult, mind you. The majority of the trains out of London Bridge these days are what I call putt-putt trains. They have electric doors, no tables, and their seats are hard, virtually unupholstered, and don’t even have antimacassars. Surely airline style seats are best suited to an airline style airline?

But really it is irrelevant what the seats are like, because a seat is something you are not likely to have. These are trains typically rammed to the gills. You will therefore be savouring your wine while standing.

Still, mind the doors, and let us depart. Those foolish enough not to carry a corkscrew will have to resort to buying a screwcapped bottle, losing several points in the battle for tradition which this exercise represents. Those foolish enough not to carry a wineglass are clearly not taking this opportunity seriously.

One of the very few advantages of standing up on a train journey is that it is easier to open a bottle of wine. The bottle is easily held between the legs while the cork is pulled. Removing it while seated requires significant elbow room, room which for some reason has not been accommodated by the designers at Bombardier.

The sound of the cork being removed will be likely to turn heads. That is not curiosity you see. It is envy.

The opened bottle will have to reside in the side pocket of a blazer or coat, but it will become progressively less of a burden. One hand is free to hold on to the glass, and one to hold on for dear life. From personal experience, I suggest you pour while the train is stationary.

Beware of the jerks, which can cause a glass of wine to slop. No, not the jerks of the train, but the ones who insist on pushing past, despite the fact that you are clearly trying to savour a serious claret, lured as they are by the tantalising possibility of a working toilet,

Remove your consciousness as far as possible from the surrounding experience. Try to shut out the frequent reminders that you are on a modern train, arising mainly from the many mobile phone calls which begin, “I’m on a train…”.

Ignore the fascinating arguments between travellers and ticket inspectors about the validity or otherwise of someone’s super off-peak special discount Roustabout return And don’t become intrigued by your fellow travellers – sorry, customers – or start wondering just what it is that that mother is planning to give her child which will be something to moan about.

No, bring to mind a bygone age of train travel in comfort and luxury. Sip your fine wine. Try and channel the Orient Express, but without the murder. Or the Channel.

And you should find that you arrive at your destination in a significantly better frame of mind than usual. You will not get cross when it is announced that yours is the next “station stop”, wondering how that might differ from either a “station” or a “stop”. You will not fulminate at the exhortation to “make sure you take all of your belongings with you”, despite the fact that most of your belongings remained at home throughout.

For you will have enjoyed a glimmer of rail travel past, provided by Berry Bros & Rudd.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.