Sediment On Stage

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.


Thursday, 7 August 2014

A Month In France: Not Much Champagne

So we are on our grand tour of France, cutting a swathe from South Brittany to the Ventoux, calling on French friends and English friends, and annoying them equally in turn with our demands for food and shelter and entertaining banter. The French friends (and indeed French relative strangers, some of them) are morbidly depressed by the state of France, at the same time as they acknowledge the French Paradox: France may be in a condition of historic decline, but the French, by and large, still live well. Hours go by during which they mournfully drink delicious and affordable wines and pessimistically slurp up outrageous cheeses while the evening crickets buzz away in the scented gloaming and the country goes to the dogs. 'Where is our Meesis Thatcheur?' they ask. 'Well, ours is dead', we answer, sometimes in French, 'and interred just off the King's Road.'

And the wines? I was getting into a flap, shortly before going away, about how to get my (I assumed) inevitable haul of drink back to England without cooking it in the back of the car or otherwise ruining it on the trip through rough handling or inattention. The result? We are now two days from the end, and I still haven't bought a thing.

As it happens, we are staying in a Chambre d'Hôte deep in the Aube, not far from Troyes. Two things. First, the Chambre d'Hôte is determinedly eccentric, every room crammed with violently French bric-à-brac, including, in the sitting-room, a life-sized model of a horse made of driftwood, a 1950's radiogram in the kitchen, and a broken foot spa in the bedroom. 'There are two dogs and nine cats living in this house,' our host tells us, 'three of the cats live only on the top floor. They never go out.'

Secondly, we are on the southern flank of champagne country; not in the famous bit, around Reims and Épernay, but in a serious producing region nonetheless. Our host proves this by pouring us some terrific cold fizzy stuff whose name absolutely escapes me, as well as offering a plate of home-made macaroons. This is our apéro for the day. He reveals that Moët & Chandon have bought up a chunk of the neighbourhood, for millions of Euros. 'Three-quarters of the pinot noir we grow here ends up with the big houses. The rest we make into champagne ourselves.' His extremely short wife comes in, her head only just visible above the furniture. 'The macaroons are delicious,' we say, our mouths so full that no-one can understand us.

The next day we drive through hectares and hectares of vineyards. Unlike the woollier, more intimate vignobles we've come to know around Ventoux and Beaumes de Venise, these are industrial: ruthlessly organised, pinstripe-regular, marching across the undulating terrain far into the distance.

'We should really get some champagne,' my wife says, as we idle through an oversized village, passing one small producer after another.
'This is all pink,' I say. 'Do we want pink?'
'It's not all pink,' she says. 'We should get a case. Let's just get some.'

But where? Which? There are so many makers, all offering dégustation et vente, many with boxes of geraniums around their windows, and rusty metal silhouettes of bunches of grapes, and tidy gravel drives, and other bourgeois inducements, that I can't think where to start. Apart from which, we are running out of time to visit Troyes, the whole point of getting in the car in the first place. It is like being in an American supermarket, trying to choose a pack of breakfast cereal from the scores on offer and not miss your flight at the same time: the nightmare of endless possibility.

'Just buy some fucking champagne,' my wife reiterates, seeing the end of the village approaching.
'I will not,' I say, suddenly deciding that I have always hated champagne and wouldn't buy it if someone paid me, and anyway, there isn't enough room in the car.
'This is ridiculous,' she says. 'We're practically drowning in it. Just stop and get some.'

That evening, having not bought any wine, still or sparkling, we drink another fantastic apéro, different champagne, no macaroons. We then eat dinner in the kitchen, seated between the radiogram and an enormous bowl full of abandoned glass stoppers, while our host refuses to join us in the meal, but sits instead on a high chair - a kind of Dickensian clerk's stool - a few feet away, and watches us, intently.

It is the end of the French trip, and we have acquired en route a fancy red handbag, a humorous tin tea tray, some second-hand paperbacks, a lot of flyers from the Avignon Festival, and a bottle of cheap Scotch whisky (Baird's Original) made for the French market. I don't think of myself as wilfully perverse, but it takes some doing to drive from one end of the world's greatest wine-producing country to the other, and back again, without purchasing a single bottle of wine. If this trip has proven at least two things, they are: a) that I don't know myself as well as I think I do; b) that, given sufficient headroom, it is possible to fit a horse into a lounge.


Thursday, 31 July 2014

Misled by the blind

I’ve been reading yet another of those damn fool blind tasting articles.

You know the ones I mean. The ones which “prove” that, when people don’t know what’s in their glass, they can’t tell an expensive Burgundy from a bargain plonk, or red wine from white wine, or white wine from petrol.

“Could YOU tell Lidl's £5.99 claret from a £595 Grand Cru?” asked the Daily Mail. “Our thirsty volunteers tried - with hilariously humiliating results”. 

Well, in this particular case, Oz Clarke was just about spot on with every one of the wines he sampled blind. He could indeed tell the £5.99 Lidl claret (“It’s reasonably nice from an average-tasting grape”) from the £595 Haut-Brion 1990 (“…reminiscent of pews in a cathedral…old and indulgent…This is the serious bottle.”) So presumably some of the “hilarious humiliation” rests with the Daily Mail itself. 

But what a ridiculous charade. Imagine, for instance, a blind comparison of trainers. You’re blindfolded, then you put successive pairs of trainers on your feet; after walking around in them, you have to say whether the pair you have on is the gobsmackingly expensive Nike/Prada collaboration, or the bargain Hi-Tecs from Sports Direct.

Sorry, what’s that you say? That you don’t buy trainers solely on the basis of a sensory response? That name, price and appearance all affect the way you feel about your trainers? Ah…

We do not ourselves host blind dinner parties. Although now I think of it, there have been times when I would have preferred certain guests to have bags over their heads.

So to me, the presentation of the wine is as important as the presentation of the food. Seeing the wine, with the anticipation it hopefully raises. The look of the bottle and label, even if people don’t necessarily recognise the name. The detail, the vintage, for those who are interested. Let my people see.

I actually find that even older gents with dodgy eyesight seem remarkably visually perceptive when a bottle of wine is concerned. (“Isn’t there a touch left in that bottle on the sideboard?”) Perhaps they should use claret labels in eyesight tests, whether for distance (“That looks like a Margaux to me…”) or for detail (“Oh I say, do I spy an ’82?”)

Of course some of us have decanted a wine before a meal, not because it needed it, but because we wanted to hide the label. Possibly because of its garish, crude design, which would somewhat diminish the elegance of the table. Perhaps because of its downmarket origin, suggestive of an unacceptable lack of generosity towards one’s guests. Probably because we didn’t want it to be spotted by someone who might also have seen it on a 3 for 2 offer. 

But when the wine has been good enough to actually merit decanting, I know I’m not alone in keeping the empty bottle on display, so that people can see what they’re drinking.

It’s been similarly “proven” that people find artistically presented food tastes better than food simply plonked on a plate. And I don’t find the fact that presentation alters our palate in this way particularly surprising. (In some circumstances it can even be rather convenient, as in “I’m sorry dearest but I cannot balance the fish on top of the carrots, which must be why it tastes funny.”)

So unless you’re going to share it “blind” with your guests, what’s the point in knowing how a wine is perceived without its visual information? And heaven knows what serving it “blind” would actually mean. That every time someone’s glass got low, you removed it to an adjacent room in order to fill it up unobserved? Or that the bottles are encased in bags, with the consequence that your table looks like a street-drinking convention

No, I’m afraid I want a wine to be judged as my guests will experience it – told what it is, shown how it looks, and being influenced by its name, its price and its appearance.

And I can tell you now, if I’m ever serving a £595 bottle of Haut-Brion, I will certainly want people to see it.


Thursday, 24 July 2014

Double visions – the lookalike wine labels

When they said that drinking wine could leave you seeing double, this wasn't what I thought they meant. 

I would not wish you to think that I blunder along the shelves of my supermarket blearily plucking in desperation at anything that reminds me of a bottle of wine.

But I have only the time it takes Mrs K to negotiate the bread and baking aisles, during which I am left in the wine section, to choose the week’s wine and to come up with a plausible story for purchasing it. 

I’m looking for something that we really must have, we need to have, because of guests, or the weather, or something. And given the summer sun, what about that vinho verde from Azevedo I read about, lovely for drinking on its own in the garden. I recognise that tall bottle, that name, that label with an old building on it. And there can’t be that many items in the aisle with both ‘v’ and ‘z’ on their label, unless Sainsbury’s is now offering vajazzles.

Well. Of course, I was proven wrong. It turns out that what I bought is not the lovely Quinta de Azevedo, described as "Almost bone dry ... thirst-quenching ...sparky, floral, stone fruit” - Jane MacQuitty. Not the Quinta de Azevedo described as “Filigree-light, dry white with pure, clean flavours of pear, apple and lemon, and a delicate hint of spritz” – Suzy Atkins. No, this is Torre de Azevedo, described as “slightly syrupy, yellowish wine which gradually reveals, as the chill wears off, a certain slimy fruitiness, ending in an acidic attack to the throat like an onset of tonsilitis” – Sediment.

More fool me? Well sorry, but on a rushed morning in the supermarket, I didn’t expect to need a wine encyclopedia. I know, you shouldn’t judge a label by appearances, or a book by its cover – but if you see a book cover that looks like the one you remember, and it says JK Rowling on the spine, you’d be pretty copped off when you get home and realise it's an adventure of the lesser wizard Harry Pooter.

And this has happened to me before. Previously, in a short-lived exploration of wine in a box. I made the mistake of thinking that Caja Roja, in a box, was the same as the similarly packaged Carta Roja, in a bottle. I submit, m’lud, that any harrassed shopper would assume these two are the same wine:

They are not.

Am I the only person who is falling foul of this? The marketing people worry about wine being baffling to the average consumer – and then set them what amounts to a spot-the-difference test.

The discount store Lidl, for example, is planning to target upmarket London wine drinkers with some classy Bordeaux. ‘Lidl claret offensive’ said one headline, a statement which I felt read more like a tasting note than a marketing strategy.

Lidl will be selling, at £13.99, a wine from Chateau Siaurac, No, it’s not Chateau Siaurac itself; nor is it the second wine of Siaurac, which is Plaisir de Chateau Siaurac. But the ‘Reserve de la Baronne’ certainly looks like them:

Perhaps you can pick it out from the Chateau Siaurac line-up:

So before deciding whether a wine is the one you think it is, you have to master some kind of identification parade. A general memory of a name and a label, as I discovered, is no longer enough.

You can’t just send someone down the road to buy a bottle of wine based on your description of the label. “Oh, pick up a bottle of that red – it has a white label with a sort of circular device in red, like a Celtic symbol or something…” They might pass The Good Wine Shop, and bring back the bottle of Clonakilla, which you meant – or they might pass Oddbins, and bring back The Good Templar. Which you didn’t.

And a little knowledge can sometimes be more misleading than useful. I know, for example, of Chateau Ygay, a magnificent Rioja which I’ve tasted but can’t afford. So a label with similar type practically leaps at me from the Waitrose shelf:

The distinctive swirly red lettering, the additional gold swirly subtitle…could the significantly cheaper El Patito Feo perhaps be Ygay’s second wine? Are they by any chance related? 

No, sadly not. El Patito Feo is not even a Rioja; it’s actually from a different area of Spain. And while this upstart may be from the same country, it is not in the same Liga as Ygay.

No wonder people get taken in by fake wines, when it’s so easy to mistake the real ones. Confused at first sight, it’s little wonder some of us end up buying not quite the wine we thought.

Heaven forbid it could ever be a deliberate ploy…


Thursday, 17 July 2014

Transportation: Muscadet Sur Lie

So by the time this appears, I should be in the family car speeding south somewhere in the depths of France, our indéchirable road map of the entire country sprawling aggressively across the front two seats, my wife growling at it like a dog with a chew toy. The sun should be shining, the towns and villages should be an indigestible French visual mix of manicured tourist honeypots and leaden pouvoir de l'état latterday municipal buildings, including but not limited to, salles polyvalantes, newbuild Mairies, local museums, 1980s artisanal markets, préfectures, police stations, go-ahead toilets and maisons de retraite. Assuming we can remember to operate according to that unspeakable provincial French timetable which only allows for anything to be open four hours a day (restaurants, especially), we should be fed and watered. The sunflowers will be out or I'll want to know the reason why, and we will have Django Reinhardt on the car stereo.

Which only leaves the drink. Inevitably there will be hundreds and hundreds of roadside inducements to stop'n'shop at hundreds and hundreds of winemakers' outlets. And we will have a car we can keep! Not one we have to give back at the airport! I ought to be able to fill the thing from floor to roof with wine, such that the wheel-arches wear the rear tyres smooth and the car takes bends like the coach at the end of The Italian Job on account of the massive weight of wine stuffed in the boot and spread over the back seat.

Only snag? Well, we're coming back a different way from the way we're going out. For all I know, the regions we pass through on the return leg don't even make wine. It's now or never for the stuff I'm currently going past. I should buy now, before it's all gone.

But if I start buying wine now, in a couple of weeks' time - when we catch the ferry home - it will have spent many days alternately jouncing around the C-roads of France, or mulling itself in the stationary sunshine. At the end of the last century, the wife and I were too young and idiotic to worry about these things, and we drove around with some Muscadet Sur Lie and a load of Pouilly-Fumé and didn't care what happened to it – hairpin bends, 40˚C, hours and hours of neglect, angry lorry drivers... we just let it suffer. And all I can remember subsequently is that, back in London, it tasted six times nicer than whatever the equivalent English price would have got us.

But now we labour under the crushing burden of third-hand advice acquired from people we don't know, and fret over horror stories of people leaving their cases of wine carefully parked up in the shade while they get outside a three-hour lunch, only to find the next day that they've simmered themselves twelve bottles of AOC consommé despite their best precautions. Whatever else befalls, it seems I must observe all of the following so as not to destroy my precious supplies: if the neck of the bottle starts to feel warm, that's the wine cooked; I must get myself a cooler box that plugs into the cigarette lighter; I must never turn the engine off and always keep the air-conditioning running (oh, really?); I must wrap each bottle individually in newspaper and put the newspapered bottles in a cardboard box; I must live in dread of bottle shock; I must definitely not transport unsulphured wines; I should have the stuff sent home by an international courier, they can keep it in good order, they have temperate trucks.

This is the looming contradiction: I am at the very heart of the wine world, but I am too craven to binge on the good things all around me. The answer it seems is to try and finesse the contradiction without actually fixing it. I can get all the booze I like, but only in the run-down to departure, and fingers crossed there'll be something I want to buy in Basse-Normandie, other than Calvados. Which means a couple of weeks spent hurtling past adorable stone châteaux and whimsical giant roadside wine bottles, places I know will have the drink of my dreams at a price I can live with, biting my lip and doing nothing, while my wife complains alternately at me and the indéchirable, that we're heading in precisely the opposite direction to the one we ought to be taking. What holidays are all about, I suppose.