Thursday, 25 September 2014

One green bottle (empty)

The other day, I bought this bottle of a fairly basic Sauvignon Blanc, in order to make and accompany a seafood risotto. 

Now obviously, quite a bit of wine went into the risotto. Quite a bit. It wasn’t a Jamie Oliver recipe, so I wasn’t reduced to measures like two sloshes and a bosh; but even so, I poured into the risotto what might best and most accurately be described as… quite a bit. 

So when I finished off the remainder over the course of the evening, no-one, really, could say that I had drunk an entire bottle. No-one, really, except for Mrs K.

There was an honest answer to the question, “Did you drink all of that?’, and I was prepared, and that answer (see above) was no. Unfortunately the question I was actually asked was “Did you drink the rest of that?”, demonstrating the courtroom clarity for which spouses are renowned.

What could I say?  It just quietly slipped away, before anyone noticed, like a Great Escapee. It had the quiet politeness one expects from Waitrose; nothing pushy, or shouty, or forward, which enabled it to amble away unpoliced. And then… it was gone.

The thing is, at no point did I feel sated. There have been occasions on which I felt I had drunk enough white wine, but that’s largely because I got bored. Or because it was pretty horrible, and I thought that it would be better to save the rest for cooking, and take my chances with something else. 

But a white wine has never been completely fulfilling. Whenever I have moved from the white wine with a starter to the red with a main, it has always been with anticipation, rather than regret. Like a support act on the main stage; you can sometimes be delighted by how good it is, but you still can’t wait for the headliner.

In fact, I sometimes feel as if white wine doesn’t quite count. That you can often drink your way through it like this, almost without noticing. Oh, there are fabulous white Burgundies, but I can’t afford them (or so I am told, by my appointed Head of Procurement, Mr Nat West). I am resigned to the cheaper offerings, most of which seem to regard Pinot Grigio as their role model for consumer-friendly bland drinkability – and all of which evaporate mysteriously from my glass.

I can only draw a comparison with a stonkingly good, stonkingly red wine we had the weekend before. We were joined for a roast beef Sunday supper by two young people who drink only modestly (yes, such do exist), and my brother-in-law, who appreciates a bottle of mature old claret. So I opened a bottle of mature old claret; Chateau Coufran 2001, with a second waiting in the wings.

And what do you know? It was such a deep, resonant wine that a single bottle actually satisfied five of us. That’s an average of just 150ml each, although Mrs K, inevitably, had a little less and my brother-in-law and I, inevitably, had a little more.

I’m left pondering that old adage: “drink better, drink less”. Given that there’s always going to be more to savour slowly in a mature claret than in a brisk, fresh Sauvignon Blanc. That if you’ve invested more to start with – whether money, time or expectation – you’re not going to motor mindlessly through your wine like a suction pump. 

Perhaps “drink better, drink less” is not a philosophy, an encouragement, or an ambition – but a statement of fact?


Thursday, 18 September 2014

Getting The Hang: Liberty Wines

So PK and I are down at the recent Liberty Wines tasting in South London, and it's packed with wine types, buyers, restaurateurs, know-alls, hangers-on, plausible youngish men in trousers the colour of a rash, as crowded as an Egyptian train station, in fact, and there are more wines on display than you can begin to imagine: only for once I don't feel crushed by my own boundless ignorance, but instead, weirdly empowered. How can this be?

Because this is one of those tastings where the wines are grouped by grape, rather than region. Which is incredibly good news for at least two reasons. First, it means that there is no producer/importer pouring out the wines in surgically tiny amounts while probing you for insights which you don't have. Everything's jumbled together, so you help yourself - which allows a tradecentric wine fair to become something more like an immense and slightly heartless drinks party where you don't know anyone.

Secondly, the process of identification is simplified a millionfold. Charismatic bottle with pungent, design-studio label, surrounded by others just the same? Could be anything. Identical bottle, on a table with the word MALBEC written on a placard on a stick? I'm home and dry, already confident that I don't like it. CHARDONNAY posted above a table the size of a garage door, covered in heartbreakingly blonde botttles? I am all over it, especially since the first thing I see is a perfectly-chilled Chassagne-Montrachet which tastes every bit as Catherine Deneuve as it looks. 'Life is good,' I say to PK, who merely grunts and ducks his head as he moves purposefully towards the distant CABERNET SAUVIGNON.

After four years of Sediment and many humiliations and much queasy ignorance, something has lodged. Over here, I spot the SANGIOVESEs containing, yes, a couple of nice Chiantis. Feeling a need to stay Italian, I scout around for a Vermentino, and there it is, VERMENTINO, a whole trestle of it, and some of is delicious, just the way I'd hoped. PK and I then cuff some PINOT NOIR about a bit, noting with blithe pomposity how hard it is to get Pinot Noir just right. Next to someone who knows their wines, I am still an idiot, a tabula rasa. Next to someone who really doesn't know their wines, I am starting to sound like someone who knows their wines.

'How did you learn all that stuff?' I guilelessly quiz PK, who is, of course, no use to me, claiming to have once had a youthful Epiphany as a consequence of which he dedicated himself in priestly manner to Bordeaux; but he won't say when it was, or what it was, which I find sinister. Add to this the problem that my trying to learn anything these days is pretty futile; committing finished, actual wines, with names, to memory, is like trying to remember the Periodic Table - a sequence of impenetrable symbols and nomenclatures, arcana I just don't get. I am old.

On the other hand, learn-about-wine courses do like to begin with grapes and go from there, so there must be a reason. I once had to spend half a day in the bristling company of the then Chairman of the Wine Development Board, who harangued me and some drunken women about Cabernet Sauvignon in the basement of a hotel in St James's; I wasn't any the wiser by the end, but the occasion as a whole sticks in my mind. So grapes are good. Like cities on a map, they're the entities around which you mentally structure your progress towards the smaller, cuter, subdivisions, the townlets and villages, the wine makers and the châteaux. Some of this (therefore) must have become internalised over time, in spite of the fact that my head is basically filled with kapok.

And here's a thing: what if the big supermarkets stocked their booze by grape variety? How cool would that be? Shiraz/Syrah mixes over here; Sauvignon Blanc over here; Pinot Noir (including champagnes) over here? Yes, it would create limitless problems of supply and display and generate a catastrophic amount of human error. But the clarity, the almost divine sense of order if it did work: instead of having to make sense of the whole phonebook of wine, the undifferentiated rabble, Australia to Zimbabwe, we would have a strong, simple, memorable taxonomy, the benefits of which would be miraculous - and I can think of two, straight off. One: if (like, let's say, PK) you wanted to pursue the noble Cabernet Sauvignon across the globe in all its manifestations, your job would be made massively easier and more satisfying. Two: it would become blindingly obvious to all supermarkets that they had five hundred times more examples of Pinot Grigio than anyone could possibly want. And that's just for starters.


Thursday, 11 September 2014

Lessons learnt – McGuigan Estate Shiraz

Foolishly, stupidly, I let CJ buy a bottle of wine for the two of us. I feel I should allow others to benefit from this sorry experience.

We are working on Sediment’s first ever stage appearance, at the Chiswick Book Festival. A day of editing and reading requires a light lunch of sandwiches etc – and whether to get us in the zone, or to mete out some kind of punishment, CJ insists that we need a bottle of wine to go with it. He’s buying, he says, brandishing a fiver as if it is a golden ticket, and not a printed guarantee of disappointment.

And I agree, partly because, out of some ethnographic curiosity, I want to see what happens when someone like CJ buys a bottle of wine. Someone so like CJ that he is, in fact, CJ. Rather than point out the errors of his ways, I shall simply observe them. There are lessons to be learnt here, and I shall pass them on for what they are worth.

Needless to say, I approach with caution the McGuigan Estate Shiraz he chooses. As the McGuigan name coincidentally reminds me, Shiraz can be a pretty pugilistic wine at the best of times. And this one is thick and purplish, like a bruise. Never mind how my teeth are going to look, I worry about whether it is capable of staining my tumblers. (Because of course, he wants to drink it out of tumblers…) 

Astonishingly, CJ is comfortable with its furious attack. I have never before described a wine as ‘angry’, but there is something about this wine which tastes exactly as a bee in a jamjar sounds. It growls ferociously around my mouth, a brawl between tannins and alcohol taking place ankle-deep in fruit. 

I look to CJ for guidance. In this particular arena of bodily harm, he’s got form.

“Leave it in the glass for a bit,” he suggests, wiping his now watering eyes. 

He’s right, in the sense that it gives up the fight, and collapses. Drinking it becomes slow and arduous, like wading through a fruit slurry.

What do we learn from this? Well, there were several elementary mistakes I think CJ made. Take note, and you can avoid similarly unpleasant consequences.

Location, location, location. There are many places you can purchase a decent bottle of wine these days but, despite the broadening of their commercial remit, these do not include somewhere calling itself a Post Office.

Height. At one point, I almost fell over CJ, who was crouching down on his haunches, the better to choose from the lower shelves. If you think of Darwin’s unfolding ascent of man, the cheap wine buyer is the figure bent low on the left, the equivalent of the knuckle-dragging cro-magnon. As opposed to the upright, homo sapien wine buyer on the right. You can’t argue with evolution. The latter stance has developed for a reason, viz. that it puts you on an eyeline with anything worth drinking. 

Language. This label says that “The premium vineyard regions of South Australia provide some of the country’s finest wines”. It does not claim that this is one of them.

Trophies. Although the microscopic print reveals that they are three years old, and don’t apply to this actual wine, there are two medals on its label. “Look! medals!” says CJ triumphantly. He thinks commendations. I think, Colonel Gadaffi

Screwcap. Most of the arguments against corks are about the maturing and/or spoilage of good wine, not about the bottling of wine which is dreadful in the first place. This seems to me something of a numbers game. There are still relatively few great wines with a screwcap. Ergo, the chances of a terrible wine must increase if it does not have a cork.

Price. Well, what can you expect for a fiver after Mr Osborne has trousered his take? As it looks to offload its massive overproduction, there’s a possibility of finding a drinkable bottle of wine from Spain. But if you want to guarantee something good to drink for less than a fiver, buy a beer.

But I think he knows. I think CJ needs something to rail against, somewhere to vent his spleen. He is like a man who follows a continually failing football team. It nourishes his sense of injustice. We all need things in our lives which help us appreciate the good, and he seems to have chosen cheap wine.

And, for better or worse, me.


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Costières de Nîmes: Language Issues

So, three things happen:

1) I finally knock off the bottle of Costières de Nîmes I acquired a couple of weeks ago. This was the one I bought on Olly Smith's recommendation - he called it 'Plump, sleek red with deep summery fruit,' also, 'Spot on for serving lightly chilled with a barbecue', a claim I couldn't double-check on account of not having a barbecue in the first place. Worth hunting down in Sainsbury's? Well, I got some spicy, chocolatey sensations, quite a belt at the back of the neck from the 14% alcohol, but nothing sleek, and not what I could honestly call fruit: more nuts and caramel, like drinking a Toblerone bar. Lesson learnt? That I don't experience the world the same way as Olly Smith. Just as well (I piously observe) we're not all the same, how dull it would be if we all had identical tastes, perhaps if I followed Olly Smith more assiduously I would learn where his favouritisms tend to lead him and adjust my expectations accordingly, and so on.

2) Then I make the fatal mistake of buying a copy of Decanter, something I think I've only done once before in my life. What's the problem with Decanter? Only that it intensifies the crisis of language which started with Olly Smith - mainly when I get to page 10 and find Andrew Jefford really letting himself go about Merlots. For instance: 'The 2009 brims with richness (cream, vellum, faded roses) and thick-textured, late-Romantic, Rosenkavalier-like decadence'; or, 'just beginning to tiptoe towards the Havana-leaf complexities the variety is justly celebrated for'; or even 'broad-chested' (of a wine, this is); and 'a similar vapoury classicism'. I am now squinting with rage. What, actually, does all this convey? To put it another way, why do wine writers give themselves over to this kind of deranged poeticism? Fauré's Requiem was once described as 'Death and Château d'Yquem'; the motoring journalist LJK Setright, who always wore his learning effortfully, wrote a poem to a Ferrari ('The red-eyed ramrod thrust of the warhorse', and more, in that vein); William Mann famously talked about the 'Chains of pandiationic clusters' in the Beatles' songs; but these are well-mapped and easily avoided embarassments. Most of the time, we can only stand so many panting metaphors (see what I mean?) before we lose the will to live. Why then do wine writers - not just Andrew Jefford - start sounding like Lawrence Durrell the moment they get close to a fancy bottle? Whose interests do they serve?

3) Helplessly browned off, I discover a little item on the BBC website, hinting at a possible new dispensation. Scientists have been working on ways to fingerprint the characteristics of wines objectively and consistently; or, as the Beeb puts it, 'Demand is growing for a more objective test - to help consumers bypass woolly terminology, protect artisan producers' intellectual property, and help auction houses detect fraud.' Clearly, the real news in this concerns the fraud aspect - Rudy Kurniawan being the most recent, biggest and boldest fraudster of them all - but this in turn throws a light on the gullibility of high-end wine buyers, which in turn throws light on the potentially misleading irrelevance of all that rococo wine writing, all that woolly terminology. Even if the characteristics of every single wine in the world could be summed up in a unique chemical barcode, it wouldn't - of course - halt the stampede for the thesaurus whenever the cork came out, and the consequent yielding to ten-dollar words. There's something about the cultural potency of wine (love, good fellowship, riot, heartbreak, social aggrandisement, escape, death, versifying, hilarity, yearning, tasty meals, song, vendetta, humiliation, action painting, all down to it) that encourages people to toss reasonable scepticism out of the window. But. Suppose, just suppose, once everyone had finished preening and phrase-making about, I don't know, a Pichon-Longueville, there was a great string of numbers, like the identifying numbers on a car chassis - well, how rational, how calming, would that be? If I were a proper wine writer, I'd say it was like moving from a Dickensian parlour crammed with dodgy antiques, into Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, but I'm not, so I won't.


Thursday, 28 August 2014

The hard sell of a modern claret – Chateau La Tulipe de la Garde

There are certain things which I feel only benefit from a hefty dose of tradition. Like gentlemen’s clubs, Christmas, and claret. And here is a perfect example. Château La Tulipe de la Garde has the kind of label which catches my eye like an eyecatching thing. Look at all of that gilt, that French, that boast of heraldry. Reminds one of the period when the English didn’t just drink Bordeaux, we owned it.

It’s only later, as the bottle casts an enhancing aura of the Old World over a microwaved supper, that my eyes escape the lure of the main label, and suspicions begin to arise that contemporary marketing may have got its mitts on this claret.

The back label disturbs me, with a claim that La Tulipe de la Garde is “a modern, fast upcoming wine in the Bordeaux area”. This bodes ill. I do not want to see the word 'modern' on my claret, any more than I want to see 'instant' on my coffee, or 'American' on my mustard.

And the lower band declares that this wine is a ‘limited edition’ – of 68,247 bouteilles. This actually strikes me as rather unlimited; it’s true that, say, Château Margaux only produces 130,000 bottles a year, but I suspect there is rather more demand for that. In this case, the term ‘limited edition’ might be replaced, by anyone other than a marketing department, with the term ‘production run’.

(I also note that 68,247 is an odd number – literally – and suggests to me, rather less positively, a producer determined to wring every last single bottle out of their grapes.)

‘Mis en bouteille au Château’, it declares traditionally on the back label, then ‘Ilja & Klaas Gorte, Père & Fils, Bordeaux/London’ – an agglomeration of Dutch, French and English which has rarely delivered success for anyone, let alone Arsenal.

And I then find myself engulfed in over-enthusiastic marketing. This wine has its own website. It has its own monthly newsletter. “Slurp with us!” they say, with irritating cheeriness. (If anyone ‘slurps’ at my table, they get a dirty look and a lesson in common decency.) The back label even carries a QR code to view a movie. It’s all too much.

The back label also tells us more about ‘owner Ilja Gort, who insured his famous nose for 5 million euro’s [sic].’ (Whatever the English left the Bordelaise in 1453 clearly did not include an education in how to use the apostrophe.) When it comes to famous noses, I am familiar with Mr Jimmy ‘Schnozzle’ Durante, and with the extraordinary nose of the late Karl ‘The Nose’ Malden, which now appears to have its own Facebook page, but I had not heard before of Mr Gort’s famous nose. Still, it’s important to insure such things, what with all these nose-thieves about.

I wonder if his famous nose registered, like my less celebrated nostrils, a bouquet with not so much fruit as veg, and with troubling notes of latex?

There’s a decent Bordeaux struggling to break free of its barrel wood here, like a claret in a coffin. There’s a shedload of sediment for a 2011, but let it breathe for a bit and what gradually emerges is a decent claret with a twang about the edges and a bit of weight and resonance.

But it’s too late. It’s been spoilt for me by all this contemporary marketing stuff. Unlike the St James’s clubs I associate with claret, I feel the Gorts (Pere & Fils) are trying to start a club desperate to have me as a member. And what I want from a Bordeaux is that slight aloofness of a status earned through tradition, rather than the noisy salesmanship of an upstart.

If this were a fashion label, I could understand all of this marketing, this desperate bid for an ongoing relationship. Buy a pair of jeans or trainers nowadays, and you sort of expect to find the manufacturers bombarding you with websites and movies and newsletters and QR codes. But a Bordeaux?

Especially when there are only another 68,246 bottles out there.


Thursday, 21 August 2014

Groundbreaking: Barbera D'Asti 2011

So this empty bottle has been sitting in the kitchen for weeks now: an Araldica Barbera D'Asti Superiore 2011 which I bought from Waitrose, once. Why is it there, not in the recycling bin?

'I must have had a reason for leaving it out,' I think to myself, using the logic of the dotard. 'I guess I bought it when some people came round and I wanted to look flash, and it was so punishingly good I kept the bottle as a reminder to get some more.' Since it retails for nearer £10 than £5, it counts as a Premium Purchase, but with all the money I saved by not buying any wine in France, I reckon I can justify a re-up this one time in order to settle the question.

By my standards this is grown-up thinking. Preening, I start to lose sight of the original proposition, and wonder: What if I were to do what PK and other real wine-drinkers do? What if I were to buy my wine by design, rather than by mere inadvertence? What if, instead of drifting aimlessly towards the drink section in the supermarket and grabbing the first wine bottle I see which hits the price point and doesn't have a picture of a flower or a zoo animal on the label - what if I consult another party on what to get, and then actively seek that wine out? An enterprise which, despite the profusion of print, personal and online experts currently jockeying for my attention, I have never actually undertaken? Suddenly, life is full of possibilities. What with this and the new carpeting on the stairs, 2014 is turning out to be a pretty groundbreaking year.

Of course, some pre-selection is needed, otherwise I'll get bogged down. And the first pre-selection I make is that whatever I buy must come from Sainsbury's, on account of the parking's good and you get free air for your tyres at the petrol station next door.

'Genius,' I mutter under my breath. 'Oh, and the mineral water's cheap, too. And I read somewhere that their bargain wines are not the worst.' What to look for? Ten minutes of internet wine-bothering yields Olly Smith's choice of a Costière de Nîmes ('Plump, sleek red'); a Taste the Difference Beaujolais-Villages ('Vibrant, raspberry- and spice-scented') from Hamish Anderson; and a Torre De Azevedo Vinho Verde ('Sparky, zesty and refreshing') from Terry Kirby. When was the last time I had any Vinho Verde? I can't wait.

Thing is, when I get to Sainsbury's with my shopping list in my hand, I find that the wine section is more chaotic than I was anticipating. Reds over here, whites over there, yes, and a solitary placard claiming a whole section for New Zealand, but there's a lot of cross-border traffic, with Italians and Spaniards muddled in with the French reds, while the whites are like a tinker's stall, stuff from everywhere jostling with stuff from somewhere else, and about sixty different kinds of Pinot Grigio. 'Where is anything?' a big bald man asks me. 'I have no idea,' I say. A few bottles further down, a guy in a high-visibility jacket stares disbelievingly at a Rioja. His mobile phone goes off, playing the Russian National Anthem as a ringtone. It's going to be a long morning.

In the end, I unearth the Beaujolais-Villages and the Costière de Nîmes, but not the Vinho Verde. For this I substitute a Sainsbury's own label equivalent, which I drink accidentally one day, remembering only to think how nice it is and when was the last time I had Vinho Verde? The Beaujolais-Villages, on the other hand, gives me a blotting-paper mouth and scalded adenoids. What have I done to Gamay that it should do this to me? Apparently the Duke of Burgundy outlawed its production at the end of the fourteenth century because it was so horrible: a piece of intelligence I wish I'd known before starting out. As a punishment, and quite unreasonably, the Costière de Nîmes is still in the pending tray.

Oh, and the Barbera D'Asti Superiore which set this half-baked train in motion? Well, I do buy some, and look at it for a couple of days as if contemplating the phone number of an ex-girlfriend, before giving in. Vanilla, caramel, nutty finish, rather likeably evasive and unpredictable, in the way that Italian wines can be (Vermentino, anything Sangiovese, just saying), quite a whoof at the end. I mean, it's okay. It's fine. I share it with a friend but we forget to say whether we like it or not. Did I really need to hang on to the empty so assiduously? Was it really so delicious all those weeks ago? And now I think about it: I never liked Beaujolais. Thanks, Hamish Anderson, for reminding me that I am as easily swayed as a grass skirt.


Thursday, 14 August 2014

Drinking wine in the bath – Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages

Until I saw this image, I had always thought of drinking wine in the bath as a somewhat inappropriate pursuit for a gentleman. 

I’ve an image in my head of women drinking wine in the bath; I remember a character called Milly in the TV drama This Life, who was forever locking herself in the bathroom with candles and wine, and I can imagine Bridget Jones crying in her bath with a glass of chardonnay. But a gentleman? 

Then I came across this image and, having got myself soaked in summer rain, decided that drinking wine in a nice hot bath was a thing that needed investigating.

Of course, there are some relatively minor considerations to deal with. First and foremost, this is Steve McQueen, a man who probably looked cool sitting on the toilet. He is clearly going to have no problem with a glass of wine if he can smoke a cigarette in the bath without getting it soggy. 

Second, he appears to have a young lady in the bath with him. Perhaps she passes him glasses of wine and fresh cigarettes while he luxuriates. Unfortunately, Mrs K is away, so I cannot report on her response to such a request. I think, however, that I can anticipate it.

So, what to drink? In normal hot, humid conditions I would plump for a chilled bottle of white. But it is not going to stay chilled for very long in a glass held within a bath-warmed hand; and a bottle in an ice-bucket, dripping icy water every time it is lifted, is a recipe for disaster and physical pain. 

No, a light summer red I think, a Beaujolais. I like to think that might be what Steve has balanced on the rim at his side, in its Burgundy-shaped bottle, although I doubt whether he bought his in a Waitrose 25% off deal.

But the rim of my bath is rounded, and slopes gently inwards, a design which no doubt stops water slopping on to the floor. (Just look at how much water that young lady has dripped over the side. Wait until Steve sees that mess…) And the slope means that I can’t balance a bottle, or even a glass, on the rim.

I try placing them on the flat bit behind my shoulder. This requires crippling contortions to reach around to the wine, with a strong possibility of spillage and/or a subsequent visit to the osteopath. 

I try placing them on the floor. But every time I stretch for the glass, my armpit comes down on the shockingly cold rim of the bath. With every reach, it’s as if someone has slotted a box of frozen fish fingers into my armpit. 

So I sit in the bath, holding and sipping from a glass of wine which I cannot put down. Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages is a dependable summer favourite, with sufficient fruit to make its lightweight character worthwhile. But it is meant to be sipped and savoured; and I am beginning to realise how much the pleasure of a glass of wine involves eating, reading, watching, talking…doing something else between sips.

Whereas I am drinking faster than I ought, because I cannot put the glass down. I cannot wash, because I am holding a glass of wine. I cannot snooze, in case I drop the glass. I have nothing to look at, apart from that tile which needs regrouting. 

And temperature-wise the rapidly cooling bathwater is heading in only one direction, where it will presumably meet, at ‘tepid’, the rapidly warming wine coming the other way.

After getting in, with its initial moment of pleasure, there is very little to look forward to in a bath. A bath essentially gets colder, dirtier and less gainful – and then you get out. I have to report that Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages brings little to the activity, other than ergonomic problems. Oh, and the element of hazard which mild inebriation adds to the adventure of getting out. 

It’s all very well for Steve McQueen, with a bath the size of Wales. With a conveniently flat rim. And, oh yes, a ‘nymph to the bath addressed’. If those circumstances were mine, it might somehow all make sense. But they are not, and there are only two chances of them becoming so – fat, and slim. 

In future, I shall just have a swift shower, and then enjoy my wine in a bathrobe afterwards.

And no, before anyone asks, I shall not be attempting to drink wine in the shower.