When I go drinking with CJ, things can sometimes go awry.
But The Wine Show is a simple concept; a bunch of retailers and producers at Olympia, offering their wines to taste, with an admission charge, presumably to deter penniless winos. So, a straightforward day of wine-tasting, then. Only My Affianced raised a note of caution. “A whole day?” she queried. “You’ll be insensible.”
It was neither big nor grand; there were two supermarkets present (M&S and Sainsbury), one mass-market name (Campo Viejo), a few stands offering varieties from their nation (Chile, New Zealand, Australia) – and then several small, individual producers, remarkable primarily for their facial hair. None of the top wine merchants, none of the great names. Yes, there was a stall offering tastings of major Burgundies, but with Clos Vougeot at an additional £15 a taste, both of us baulked. (I say baulked, but CJ practically expired.)
Touring the show with CJ was rather like controlling a dog on a lead in Smithfield. His main concern seemed to be that he was not getting enough in his glass, and the only time anything went into a spittoon was when he swilled out his glass with water.
Never the diplomat when it comes to wine, there was the Chilean pinot noir of which CJ memorably declared “Well, if it was cheaper, you’d knock it back, but with no great pleasure.”
Then there was his encounter with an elegant French wine consultant, who had the show’s only first-rate claret on show, unfortunately not available for tasting. Cases of the stuff, however, were stored in her warehouse near Derby. “Ah, Derby” said CJ, “The heart of the wine-growing district…”
She was convinced, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that CJ was a wine-lover (or “lovair”), but frankly incredulous at his favoured £5 a bottle price point. (“Whair do you buy zese wines?” she snarled. “Tesco?” The retort “When flush” did not translate.
But then there was also the New Zealand gewurtztraminer, of which CJ commented, “It’s just a little petillante on the tongue, isn’t it?”
“That’s not how it’s meant to be…” said an affronted exhibitor. She then opened three bottles, each of which was as CJ had described, because it had… er… gone off.
The small producers did, however, offer some intriguing wines. Sainte Croix is basically a straightforward Corbieres, although described with the passion and complexity of a sonnet by an owner and winemaker whose goatee was almost as splendid as his wine.. He detailed everything from his grapes to his limestone terroir and then, as a reward for the way we withstood his cascade of winespeak, he drew from beneath the table La Parte des Anges, his extraordinary late-harvest red dessert wine, with the nose and sweetness of a port but the smoothness and purity of a basic red. A unique experience.
And the Domaine du Prieuré exhibited a lovely unoaked Gamay, described to us by a gentleman with the most spectacular moustache. CJ launched into a lengthy conversation in French with him which I couldn’t follow, but which was punctuated with much mutual chuckling. Perhaps they were discussing facial hair.
Still, having been drawn before to the shiraz/viognier duet, I discovered a wonderful, well-balanced example, The Auction Crossing, from South Africa. The viognier gives the shiraz such a perfumed element on the bouquet, and such a lift on the palate, that it creates a terrifically rich, peppery yet round and drinkable combination. I bought a brace for the cellar, on the basis, we agreed, that “If you punched that to the ground, it would get straight back up again.”
And frankly by the end of the day we were unable to taste anything which wasn’t a substantial red. CJ was becoming worryingly argumentative; his recent explosive encounter with a cork provoked both challenges to the manufacturer of a battery-operated corkscrew, and a vociferous debate at the stand of the natural cork producers. When he mistook the postcode on the Beaune stand for a vintage, it was clearly time to leave.
We had survived for most of the day on sweaty pocketed free samples of Davidstow cheddar; my mouth felt like used kitchen roll, and CJ was worried that he was unable to leer at the girls on the stands because his teeth were so black. That’s about what I made of The Wine Show. God knows what they made of us.
When I go drinking with PK, things can sometimes go awry.
Not this time, though. We were so on top of things (at the outset) that we both arrived at Olympia bang on opening time, clear-eyed, well-shaven, surprisingly articulate for eleven in the morning. I had a notebook and a pen. PK had a kind of poacher's backpack. We went in.
Six hours later, we emerged. Six hours is a very long time to spend walking around Olympia even if you like the place. By now, I had teeth the colour of a dirty collar and a light throbbing sensation behind the temples, which was not, I think, due to the quantity of wine drunk, but a by-product of the air-conditioning which was going apeshit keeping the smells of MasterChef Live, the Wine Show's co-star) down to an acceptable level. I also had a frisky bundle of business cards, notes, flyers and tasting guides, many of which I managed to drop down the back of a radiator when I got home, and with them, my memories.
Still. What fragments remain can be reassambled like this:
1) PK always got more drink than me. I don't want to sound one-note about this, and PK has already animadverted to it, but rigorous empirical comparisons proved repeatedly that PK's little taster glass invariably got more wine poured into it by the pro on the stand than mine did. Why would this be? Mainly, I think, because PK always got his glass in quicker than I did and with a kind of steely flourish, too, with the result that I only ever appeared in the field of vision of the pourer as a hesitant stooge who may or may not have been trying to leech some off PK's assertiveness off him. So in the course of six hours I got down the equivalent of no more than half a bottle of wine, while he must have done the full 75cl.
2) Gab. This may account for some of 1) above. PK has the gab, well, you can tell from the way he writes about wine - but this isn't just short-term booklearning that only works at home, away from any critical live encounter, no, he can do this stuff, on his feet, very lightly oiled, at length, in front of real wine producers. It was a side to him which I don't remember seeing before: length and resemblance to a lighter Côte du Rhône and you can really feel the Grenache coming through and tremendous fruits and floral nose. How could they tell that he was one of them even before pouring him his centimetre of wine? They simply could, and rewarded him accordingly. What, then? Well, I found myself trying to play catch-up, adopting these terrifying verbal postures in which I actually used the words cinnamon, strong finish, structure, chocolate overtones, jammy, impressive nose and half-a-dozen other shards of nonsense which I am now too ashamed to write down. I was indulged, of course I was, these people wanted to make a sale, even to a fuddled wreck such as myself, but the more I burbled away, the greater became my terror that I was going to say something so utterly pretentious and compromising that I would have to bow my head and immediately walk out of Olympia, past the hand-made Gin stand and the MasterChef gluttony arena, past the buffalo sausage purveyors and the nougat fettlers, and out into the night. I felt like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, his cover about to fall apart in deadly fragments.
3) Paperwork. This eventually consisted of (among other things) an entirely fatuous crib-sheet listing such typical Aroma and Flavour Characteristics as cucumber, wet leaf, leather, mango and rubber on one side, with quality conclusions on the other (poor, acceptable, good, very good and outstanding, since you ask); an open letter from Catchpole & Frogitt (Your own Private Wine Merchant); a card from Wine Essentials, reminding me of their (really very impressive) electric corkscrew, vide PK supra; a flyer for exquisite teas (how?); and my own tasting notes which amount to PK always gets more wine, Montepulciano charcoal (followed by a series of eager ticks, to indicate quality) sweaty cheese, posh French bird (PK, above) party stuff, or possibly porty stuff, and Xmas pudding, which may even be a reference to Xmas pudding, being sold somewhere else, on an entirely wine-free concession.
4) Oh, and Spanish winemakers Portia, who, I am delighted to report, had a neat little stand at which to get acquainted with some of their award-winning reds, as well as learn a bit about their dazzling new Norman Foster-designed winery. What can I say about Portia, except that their stuff is really, authentically, delicious (two ticks in my taster's notes), complex, sophisticated, justly gaining in prestige and respect wherever it is consumed, and the fact that I have actually won some Portia wine as a result of putting my name in the free draw, is neither here nor there?