Thursday, 19 June 2014

Steep Gradient: Azerbaijan to St Emilion

So, a couple of weeks back, PK and I are at the London Wine Fair, and what do we see among the usual mixture of fat corporate shills and perspiring smallholders, but a display dedicated to the fine wines of Azerbaijan?

'This is the one,' I say to PK, dragging him towards the stand as if it owes him money.
'No, it's not,' he says. 'Why are you doing this?'
'Because we deserve it,' I say. 'Because we must live more intensely.'

And maybe we are such intensely-living creatures that we do deserve it: someone pours us a sweet, tarry, frankly adhesive wine, brownish-red, suggestive (I'm guessing) of Old Baku, difficult to get out of one's head. PK at once blames me, also blaming me for a Moldovan red we fight our way through later in the day; whereas I blame him for the Chile-based ProBulkWine we try last of all.

As its name suggests, ProBulkWine deals in immense quantities of generic tanker wine sourced in Chile and Argentina and priced, pre-tax, at a few US cents a litre. The punter buys as many kilolitres as he wants and has them made up into his own branded version. The 2014 vintages are on show - I'm slightly surprised they're not offering a 2015 - and we try some of them out. Well, they're so black and boiling they make Azerbaijan's Sevgilim offerings seem like Château Haut-Brion, but what do we expect?

'Have you tried the Malbec?' asks the ProBulkWine guy apprehensively.

It is not a good way to spend a Monday. 'I can't go on like this,' I say to my wife, some time later. 'I've got to aim higher.'

So why do I promptly buy half a dozen bottles of mixed grog from a Lidl in South Wales? I can't help myself: the prices are dream-like in their affordability. I pick up some all-purpose Claret for about tenpence a bottle, plus a knock-off Gewürztraminer for a bit more; and, best of all, a no-château St Emilion Grand Cru for what looks like an as-nothing £9.99. This is twice the price of the next most expensive wine, but I am so dazzled by the possibilities that I buy two bottles. It is only when I get home that I start to have my usual recidivist's second thoughts.

For a start, PK reminds me (if indeed I ever really knew) that virtually all St Emilions are Grands Crus. A trip to Berry Bros. & Rudd's website then yields the intelligence that the term Grand Cru in this case is 'Frankly misleading', being applied to 'wines that are often distinctly ordinary'. Oh, and the vintage: 2011. If I put it away for another four years, I might be on to something, but this is the real world, so four days is the limit.

I am determined to give it the best possible run-up, though. I try the giveaway Lidl claret first, in the hope that the comparison will flatter the St Emilion. How, I ask myself, can my plan fail? As it turns out, the Lidl claret bears the same relation to other clarets that instant coffee bears to proper coffee: it's a claret-flavoured beverage, ideal for when you're in too much of a hurry to open a bottle of real claret, or if you're happy to drink it while doing something else, like washing the car.

On to the St Emilion: no nose, followed by a lot of firm and fruity swillings plus charity-shop smell, ending with a blast of oven cleaner.

'I like where it's going,' I say. 'Give it a moment to develop.'

For £9.99 and a heritage label, I am willing my mind to triumph over my tongue. I pour out a glassful for No. 1 son, who also enjoys the pleasures of the table.

'It's robust,' I go on, 'it's characterful. Who doesn't enjoy drinking something that tastes a bit like fence paint? Nice colour, too.'
'Mm,' he says.
'Robust. Assertive. Grippy.' My tone becomes increasingly hysterical. Not only am I distanced from No. 1 son by age and parenthood, I am distanced by my own fixations. 'Thunderous. Multifaceted.'

I notice after half an hour or so, that he has barely touched his glass.

'I drank some Azerbaijani wine the other day,' I say, at last. 'And something called ProBulkWine.' But nothing can redeem my lost prestige, not after all this time, not even the stupidest wines in the world.


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