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.