Thursday, 14 March 2019


So it's another heady session of wine-tasting for PK and me, taking in some mixed Italians in the Institution of Civil Engineers' overweeningly terrific Westminster HQ (see pic), followed by a Barolocentric tasting at the Royal Horticultural Halls, just round the corner. It's all good. Who doesn't like Italian wines? And rain isn't even forecast.

Thing is, of course, I'm still fingers and thumbs at these wine-tastings, even after years of trudging along to them: big, small, classy, middle-of-the-road, you name it, I still freeze very slightly as I approach the table with the sample bottles and a tensely smiling winemaker/distributor on the other side. My mind blanks. I have no wisdom, no learning, nothing to say. I might as well be the spit bucket for all I contribute to the encounter.

No such problems for PK, who actually quickens his step the nearer he gets, beadily gesturing to the absolutely most expensive wine in the selection. Not only that, but he has the chat. At one table among the mixed Italians he lobs in a smartalec remark about burying a cow's horn on account of the biodynamics, which is returned quick as a squash ball by the lady behind the counter; an agreeable moment of banter ensues. I stand to one side, perfectly mute, inwardly interrogating myself about cow horns and what in the name of God can they mean? PK preens himself very slightly. I just move along, two paces behind, avoiding eye contact.

Part of the problem is that I have never been much good at learning anything, so the endless minutiae of wines were always going to be beyond my reach. Another part of the problem is that I am now so old I forget whatever it was I did once know, apart from certain brightly-lit fragments which won't go away even if I try and make them. Given which, any new information - anything from the last ten years, roughly - is never going to gain much purchase inside my head; to the extent that I now discount the idea of trying to retain anything, using other people to remember for me or simply acknowledging that I will have to get along without whatever it is I am supposed to recall. The concept of super Tuscans, for instance. Take one of the pencils, PK keeps muttering to me. Write it down. You'll never remember. I just give him a placating look, calmly acknowledging that what we think we know is not what we actually know; at the same time, forgetting which wine is which and completely losing sight of the best Barolo in the room. After three mouthfuls I can't tell the difference anyway, so why bother to make notes? That said, I do take a picture of a notice for a seminar which promises to rediscover Valtellina's Heroic Alpine Viticulture - such a great line it should be made into a film. So I haven't given up completely.

But then the next day, I am confronted with an unsettling metaphor for my own gradual disengagement from the business of making a mental effort. It's time to bottle my DIY wine: for which purpose I have saved six bottles + six corks and am good to go, when I start the final siphoning from the demijohn (where the stuff's been for the last six weeks). But what do I find? I have enough wine for precisely five bottles, not the six I thought I was making. All right, some of it I had to leave behind in the first demijohn transfer as it was mostly sludge. And in the second transfer there were a couple of puddles I couldn't quite reach with the siphon. But a whole bottle? Did I not pour enough tap water in at the start? Did I not read the instructions thoroughly? I thought I'd measured it out just right, but no. A whole bottle missing.

Obviously, this has implications for the booze itself; I won't know how bad for a couple of weeks at least. More than that, the missing sixth bottle is a kind of objective correlative for my dwindling faculties. Instead of a sixth of my home-made crap wine it might as well be a sixth of my brain that's disappeared through neglect or inattention. It's not just a question of semi-intended negligence. I am losing touch. My head is filling with emptiness. The vacant section of the wine rack where the sixth bottle should be is the growing vacuity in my mind. There you go: I'm becoming senile. Sooner or later I'll leave the house without any trousers; or I'll have to be told who Huw Edwards is; or I won't even notice that I'm not finishing my


Thursday, 7 March 2019

Gentleman winemaker Pt II

Last summer Jay McInerney wrote in Town & Country about a dinner hosted at Chateau Lafite by Baron Rothschild. “Clad in a slightly rumpled double-breasted navy linen blazer,” he wrote, “[Baron Rothschild] exudes a warmth that helps counteract his imposing height, good looks, and pedigree.”

Of all the descriptions applied there to Baron Rothschild, the only one which applies to me is “slightly rumpled”. Or, sometimes, “clad”.

Yet my progress towards becoming, like the Baron, a gentleman winemaker, moves on. For weeks of fermentation, my involvement in this home winemaking carry-on has been limited to mere observation. And this I could pursue in a gentlemanly manner, sometimes clad, and sometimes even in slightly rumpled attire.

There was little to report during this time, apart from a warm, yeasty smell, an occasional gurgle and, as the demijohn was sitting safely inside one of them, a critical shortage of buckets when it came to washing the car. I mean, how many buckets does the average householder possess?

But the time then arrived for the next stage of actual activity, in which the fermented wine has to be siphoned off its lees in demijohn 1 and into demijohn 2. This involves a sort of Professor Branestawm set-up, all of which has to be “sterlised” (sic). And to keep a certain other member of the household happy, I had to do it in the bath, in case there was any kind of spillage. Or, indeed, any remaining notion of sophistication.

Thanks to my Easy Start siphon, the “wine” (as perhaps I can now call it) surged through the tube. The key thing here was to banish from my mind the recurrent images of someone on the TV having a colonic.

The wine then had to be agitated at least three times a day for three to four days. Well, I tried telling it that Liverpool might win the Premier League, a notion which agitates me a lot, but it seemed that wasn’t sufficient. No, I had to hoist the demijohn up and physically shake it, the instructions say “for 3 or 4 minutes”. Do you realise how long that actually is? I mean, Bez or Baz or Bozo, whatever his name was, looked pretty knackered after shaking maracas on a three-minute single, and he was better fuelled than me. I’m really not up to hefting 4.5 kilos of wine around for 4 minutes at a time. I presume that Baron Rothschild has a machine to do this for him. Or a peasant.

So I decided that “3 or 4 minutes” was a euphemism, as in “I’ll savour this wine in my mouth for 3 or 4 minutes before I swallow it”.

I shan’t baffle you with the technical terms used by those of us in the winemaking game, but a sequence follows over several days of adding stuff, shaking, waiting, then repeating. In the end, you add some more stuff, which is clearly both non-vegan and non-natural and fine by me. Then “shake for ten seconds to mix, and replace cap.” What, you shake it for ten seconds without a cap? Are they mad? Never mind a demijohn of red wine, I wouldn’t do that with a recalcitrant ketchup bottle.

The next stage, bottling, will be pursued in about a week, “when the wine is clear”. Frankly, I may have no idea whether it is clear or not, because it is red. If it goes literally clear, something has gone horribly wrong. Or I have succeeded in turning wine into water.


Thursday, 28 February 2019

The Sunshine Counties

So, a couple of weeks ago, PK and I are at this tasting of Hampshire wines. Just looking at the phrase Hampshire wines gives me a bit of a start: go back a generation and it would have been the cue for a flurry of cheap gags about Derbyshire sherry and the clarets of Aberystwyth, but such are the times we live in that we go along quite looking forward to it. And yes, it is all very pleasant, although PK is frustrated at not being able to snoop around the smartyboots private club in which the event is taking place, on account of the wines of Hampshire being kept sequestered in a special basement with its own tradesmen's entrance.

That aside, what do we find? Basically a roomful of sparkling whites, about two still wines and a load of people murmuring suavely away at each other. Nothing wrong with that; we toil round the tables along with the other cognoscenti (Oz Clarke!) and I think come out finally in favour of the Hambledon Classic Cuvée; or it might be the Danebury Madeleine Angevine. Either way I forget to pick up a pencil at the check-in desk and now it's gone out of my head.

What I do recall, though, is that a) there is a definite regionality or, at least, identity, in the stuff we try, which is charming, especially given the charm of Hampshire itself, one of my favourite counties, and b) for all that, it is kind of underwhelming: a lot of crisp, slightly virtuous, Englishy hints of apples and hedgerows, a whiff of bicarb, but also a very slightly tragic undertow of Babycham - I mean, a really top-notch Babycham, as good as Babycham could ever get, but there all the same.

The upshot? Given that I've been droning on about the latter-day thrill that is English wine, I come out of the the tasting conflicted. Why is it all so nearly good without getting completely across the finish line? Is it the wine witholding or is it me? I feel I have to act. First move is to bring round a bottle of Camel Valley Cornish white sparkliing to the PK house where he and Mrs K are having some people round, plus me and the wife, for a sophisticated three-courses-plus-cheese dinner such as I can I only dream of confecting. This is in order to answer the question that PK and I keep fatuously shouting at each other at the tasting: Would you serve this at a dinner party?

Well, yes, it gets served and everyone makes polite noises about it, but it is still pretty much Babycham, the sort of Babycham you might get in Business Class on Cathay Pacific, yes, but Babycham. So, on to phase two.

Phase two is a bottle of New Hall Bacchus 2016 Reserve which someone must have brought round to our place and which I must, equally, have stuffed away against just such an eventuality. Essex-based, this one, and a tantalisingly bland 10.5%, so no risk of running amok even if I drink the bottle in one. As it happens, it lingers for three days before I get to the end of it and what do you know? It's definitively pleasant, without quite ever being there. I mean, it's fine, but so unassertive it's hard to know if I'm actually drinking it or only think I am.

On the other hand, it does befriend me in an odd sort of way. I start to think of it fondly, with its self-effacing semi-presence in the bottom of the fridge, a drink I can take or leave without knowing which of these two I have actually done, but a companion nonetheless, a modest tipple on the way to something else, perhaps, something shoutier. I could go for another bottle if it came my way.

Which leads us back (doesn't it always) to the fact that there is a nice little niche here for something genteel, tempered, very English in a Georgian domestic architecture, country garden sort of way, except that the booze costs twice as much as it should. And until English winemakers get some serious economies of scale - about half southern England under vines should do it - there the matter rests. Given the way the planet's burning up, I would say they've got about six weeks to act.