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.