Thursday, 29 September 2016

White wine? You cannot be serious – Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc

Is white wine taken seriously? The Times recently interviewed Jeremy Paxman over a lunch. Tomato salad and mutton, since you ask.  And the journalist reported that to go with the food, Paxman ordered “a glass of white wine (which he believes doesn’t count as real booze)”.

Well, I’m glad someone else has said it. Because I’m not sure myself that white wine is taken seriously.

Let’s face it, when you think of wine, you think of red wine. I’ve quoted before the essayist Christopher Hitchens, who ordered a glass of wine in a restaurant and was then asked by a waiter whether that was red or white. Hitchens retorted, “Wine. Is. Red.”

I don’t recall the New Testament specifying the colour of wine, whether it was accompanying lamb or fish. But most of the Old Masters confidently painted it red. And Bette Davis said that you should "Never, never trust anyone who asks for white wine. It means they're phonies."

Yes, there are lunches in Pall Mall gentlemen’s clubs, with Dover Sole and a bone-dry Chablis, but that’s more of a ritual than a meal with a drink.

And when you offer Champagne, everyone starts oohing and aahing as if you’ve just shown them a baby. But that’s nothing to do with the taste; it’s because it’s a statement of celebration. Champagne is like a footman’s announcement that gaiety is now in order.

So my heart sank when it emerged that, for dietary reasons, our recent Sunday lunch for guests had to be planned around fish. Which meant that I would not have the excuse of social generosity required in order to open one of my heavyweight clarets.

Of course, the wine still had to be good. There’s little worse than bad white wine. I can only assume, from the colour of the analogy, that it was a white to which DH Lawrence was referring when he complained of a Spanish wine that “this is the sulphurous urination of some aged horse."

But fortunately, back in May, CJ and I found ourselves at a Laithwaite’s tasting, on an excursion which was part fact-finding mission, part… well, there had to be a laugh in it. Little were we to know that this particular tasting would be Tweeted later that day by Jancis Robinson (no less) as “the best tasting of @Laithwaites wines I have ever been to. 

"Probably most expensive too,” she admitted, “but there are treats & some real value.”

Indeed; for there I encountered Dog Point,  a genuinely delicious Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, with all that traditional fruit salad of gooseberries and grapefruit, balanced with a crisp edge and minerally finish. Gorgeous; but at £19.99, was this even a treat, let alone real value? It was hard to consider properly, given the distraction of  CJ’s price point flabbergastation.

However, never let it be said that Sediment does not provide a reader service, even if that’s basically a euphemism for miserliness. Laithwaites currently sell the 2015 for £17.99 (“Save £2.00 – was £19.99”!)  However, Winedirect get it down to £15.50 by the case, although there’s a delivery charge. And then, God bless ‘em, there’s the Wine Society, at £13.50 a bottle with free delivery. That’s knocked it down by £6.49 a bottle. Well, presumably old Tony Laithwaite can’t drive it in his borrowed van all the way back from New Zealand.

Anyway, on Sunday, it went down well. In fact, I’d forgotten just how well white wine goes down. Even when it has a decent alcohol content, white wine doesn’t seem to receive the slow, serious, savouring respect of drinking a red. It was like watching a sink emptying.

And there was nothing for me to talk about. No years in the cellar, no en primeur gamble, no purchasing trip. No story to tell – other than how I had saved a third on the price, hardly something a host shouts about.

So I’ve come reluctantly to the conclusion that, however enjoyable, people don’t take white wine seriously. You’re not going to make any kind of impression with white wine. Unless you want to convey the impression that you’re someone who drinks white wine. Which, despite this little triumph, I don’t.


Thursday, 22 September 2016

Jefford Redux: Montepulciano D'Abruzzo

So PK nudges me in the direction of a recent, unexpectedly strait-laced, article by Andrew Jefford on the importance of writing comprehensible taster's notes. This seems fair enough, and I can't fault Mr. Jefford's line of argument, but it doesn't stop there: the article contains, nested within it, an even more surprising piece of self-admonition, a great chunk of humility centering around the tendency of most wine writers to write badly and affectedly - and containing this mea culpa from Jefford himself: 'The language of tasting notes is practically unhelpful, and at best seen as "bulls**t". I've often thought this myself; indeed I feel uneasy for having based my career in part on it.'

Well. Now I hardly know which way to turn, especially since I once took a petulant swipe at Mr. Jefford for writing (among other things) this, about a Merlot: 'The 2009 brims with richness (cream, vellum, faded roses) and thick-textured, late-Romantic, Rosenkavalier-like decadence'. There you go. Scroll forward a year or so and he's positively hectic with remorse, declaring that 'Most wine descriptions possess zero literary merit', with the result that 'You end up with wine nerds writing for wine nerds, in an excitable, echo-filled ghetto'. Well, of course: most wine writing is a kind of anti-writing, a resistence to sense, but what a mixed-up age we live in, that Andrew Jefford should promote the idea that winespeak is a bad thing.

Back I go to the original piece - How to write wine tasting notes - my heart full of confused hope. And yes, Mr. Jefford, Mr. Rosenkavalier, is sober and to the point - No fruit salad, he warns us at the start, and he's right. Be partisan is another of his injunctions, but this amounts to not much more than the assertion that If you like it, make sure we know that, and why. Which is borderline gnomic and only gets me so far, but at least it's plain-spoken. The thing concludes with another link, this time to a Berry Bros. & Rudd-related guide, hiding under the sublimely commonplace headline How to understand wine.

This, in turn, and to my growing dismay, deals with really basic stuff, stuff even I have heard of although never properly mastered, stuff like acidity, fruit, alcohol, tannins - I mean, aren't we implicitly meant to be familiar with these concepts, so familiar that we can dispense with them altogether and start reaching for the thick textures and the faded roses? What, exactly, is going on here? Was the dial of wine appreciation reset while I was looking the other way, and now stands somewhere in the mid-1960s, a time when no-one knew anything about wine - no-one except a handful of the rich and/or privileged, people who embraced terms such as conoisseurship and cellar, terms so comically fusty only PK still feels comfortable with them?

I return once again to Jefford's How to write wine tasting notes, armed with an averagely loathsome Montepulciano D'Abruzzo, acquired from somewhere. The usual criteria: screwtop, 13%, price as near £5 as I can make it, hallucinatory copywriter's drivel on the label - A rich red wine with layer upon layer of damson and morello cherry flavours. One of those.

I test the Jefford system. 1: No fruit salad. Analogical descriptors are useful - if used in moderation. Limit yourself to half a dozen at most. Okay: it's kind of harsh and fruity, like a factory-made apple and blackberry pie. 2: Remember the structure. There is no structure, so far as I can see, just a mainstream whoof followed by an abiding sense of loss. 3: Balance is all. See 2. 4: Be partisan. I love this kind of wine, principally because it's relatively cheap and available. 5: Be comprehensive. I've mentioned the screwtop, the price range, the copy on the label, what else is there? Tell us its past and future, Jefford suggests, but this is a wine without either, only a coarse and unedifying present, perhaps a hint of stainless steel containers, the poetry of pipework and tanker trucks. 6: What else? See 5. And that's it, I'm done. 

Still, I think Jefford is onto something, here. Given the mixture of snobbery and pedantry that pervades most wine appreciation, I can't see his revisonist, back-to-basics ethos gaining much traction, but we must hope. After all, it's human nature to discard old cultures in favour of new. What if we called the new approach, Brutalist Wine Writing? It's got a ring to it, it sounds as if it means business. No, New Brutalist Wine Writing, that's better. If it was a magazine, I'd buy it.


Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Social Significance of Shoes – and Wine

I cannot understand how some people fail to appreciate the significance of their shoes. After all, if you are badly shod, you can hardly put your best foot forward.

Way, way back, in The Sloane Ranger Handbook, Ann Barr and Peter York observed that “Sloanes become hard of hearing if you’re wearing the wrong shoes. How,” he asked, “can one really understand a person wearing the wrong shoes?”

Your average punter decides they want a pair of brogues, and that the only further decision is black or brown. But that’s not enough for the serious shoe aficionado like myself. Full brogue, semi-brogue or quarter brogue? Longwing? Royal or Scottish? And when you say brown, is that tan, chestnut or oxblood?

And are we talking country or town?

You can see where this is heading, can’t you? Because your average punter also decides they want a bottle of wine, and the only further decision is red or white. But that’s not enough for the serious wine aficionade like myself. Beaujolais, Burgundy, or Bordeaux? Left Bank or Right? And when you say Bordeaux, is that Cru Bourgeois, Premier or Grand?

And are we talking lunch or dinner?

It’s a long road to knowledge. You start off learning the basic, physical requirements; how to put on a pair of shoes, how to remove a cork. Then you grow up a bit, and put away childish things, like velcro fastenings and screwcaps.

You learn there are both shoes and wines suitable for particular occasions. Vintage port and patent pumps are both ideally suited to formal dinners, but anachronistic elsewhere.

Indeed, there are shoes and wines whose very purpose is embedded in their names, like dessert wines, or trainers; do not bring them out unless accompanying dessert, or training.

The point, of course, is that the details are important. The details are everything. And it’s the people oblivious to the details who are most likely to be judged by them. Which is why the chap in the Mister Byrite shoes is likely to be cheerfully, obliviously wielding a bottle of Echo Falls.

There are those who follow what I can only describe as the CJ approach to both wine and shoe buying: function, and value. Fit is important, they’ll say – fit for the foot, fit for the food. That’s the basic requirement. But if it does the job, and doesn’t cost too much, then that’s all that matters.

Except that it’s not, and this month I had it all confirmed. It emerged that investment banks had failed interview candidates who wore brown shoes with their City suits. And I should think so, too.

And frankly, I think they should also have pointed them towards the drinks cabinet, and asked for a glass of claret, dismissing anyone who even lifts the bottle of Burgundy.

There will be those who say that there is a fundamental difference between shoes and wine which I am ignoring. That we need to have shoes, whereas we do not need to have wine. To which all I can say is, speak for yourself.