Thursday, 16 November 2017

Idiot Meets App. Result? Carménère Shiraz

So I have a new phone and what better than to start downloading onto it some time-wasting and irrelevant new apps? And of all those, what better app than this wotwine thing which people have been talking about for the last few years? Yes, the comments have not been uniformly favourable and yes, the wotwine webpage actually redirects you to its users' less-than-fantastic experiences ('frustratingly unstable'...'Ok but a bit hopeless at times'), possibly in an attempt to forestall complaints, possibly as the result of an administrative error, but anyway. Since the experts' panel on wotwine boasts five Masters of Wine and one Master Sommelier, how bad can it be, really? It even claims full man-of-the-people credentials by allowing you to search for wines costing as little as £1 - there aren't any, but that's scarcely the point. There's nothing to stop you.

Down I load it: Your Supermarket Sommelier. Okay, it gets stuck updating its database but clears after a while and it's only asked for my email address once, a masterpiece of reticence in this day and age. I check my phone for 4G and location and head for the dreamland of mendacity which is my local Waitrose. This, I tell myself, will be a proper test: Waitrose's bottom shelf, quintessential garbage, and so I let wotwine loose.

Fact: it crashes each time I try to use it and needs a re-start on every occasion. On the other hand: when I finally point it at the barcode of a 2015 Storm Tree Shiraz, it comes right back at me with with Mass-produced, dilute wine with synthetic fruit and astringent acidity and reckons that £4.50 a bottle ought to be top price, rather than the £5.69 being asked. In other words, it instantly has a ring of authority once it's stopped bailing out on me. Ditto when I run Le Reveil Cabernet Sauvignon past it, a wine I drink more often than I should on account of the heartwarming cockerel on the label: Simple, light wine with chalky tannins, light body and some red cherry and blackcurrant character, it declares, which is exactly what the stuff tastes like. The app also argues that I should only pay £5 a bottle, not Waitrose's preferred £5.99 and once again, their judgement seems to me incontestable. The fact that they've even got these awful, meaningless, wines covered is a miracle; but bull's-eye assessments on top - what a world we live in.

So now I am completely in thrall to my phone and wotwine, to the extent that after a minute's use, I am letting it choose the wine for me, more or less wholesale. What comes up? A 2012 Luis Felipe Edwards Carménère Shiraz, which it thumbnails as a Spicy wine, with reasonable character, a bit thin, but sound, while, to my astonishment, concurring with the £5.99 price tag Waitrose have slapped on it. Helplessly won over, I have completely lost all power of self-determination, and instead grab the bottle with robot fingers and take it to the checkout.

The actual booze? When drunk? Just like wotwine said. I'm not entirely sure, now I think about it, that I would subscribe to the bit thin line, given that most of my red wine tastes like cold tea and this Luis Felipe stuff doesn't, but that may be a purely personal issue. Which means that, allowing for the fact that the app crashes all the time - the Android version, anyway - I can see that I will never again need to exercise any sort of discrimination when faced with the great Waitrose Wall of Disappointments. All the choosing, all the heartbreak, will be taken out of my hands. I feel a fleeting pang, yes, at yet another loss of human agency - counterbalanced by the certainty that this is just one of many things over which I now have no control and anyway, at my time of life what do I expect? I also take Fiona Beckett's point about the apparent reductiveness of wotwine, which brings almost everything down to a price point - real or ideal - leaving her to complain, 'Isn't wine a little bit more complicated - and rewarding - than that?' To which the answer, for many of us, is no, although I respect an individual's right to squander cash for drink if they really
want to.

Oh, yes, there's also a canard to the effect that supermarkets, which can read wotwine just like anyone else, will up the prices of wines which are trending on the app, thus defeating the object of the exercise. Could be. But, look, we're nit-picking here, we're just making unnecessary trouble. One the basis of one hasty experiment, I can confirm that if you can get it to work, it works. And so does the rest of my new phone, so it's a big day all round.


Thursday, 9 November 2017

25% off any six bottles – or not…

There’s one Italian red which has become something of a dinner party favourite at Casa K. It’s delicious, it’s dependable… but it has a drawback. Which is that it costs £16 a bottle.

But there’s a posh supermarket which stocks it – and, every so often, they offer 25% off any six bottles of wine. The last couple of times they were out of stock of our favourite during the offer period; I am not a suspicious man by nature, but this after all is a supermarket which admitted to The Guardian some years back that, during these offers, certain wines are “de-emphasised”. You might very well say “hidden”; I couldn’t possibly comment.

This time, however, Mrs K alerts me to the upcoming offer. I dive online faster than a Harry Styles fan after tour tickets, and mirabile dictu, they have our favourite on discount. So it’s the required six bottles in my online basket, thank you, proceed to checkout, and on to Delivery Options. Where the whole thing falls apart – and Mrs K, hearing what I am writing about this week, says “This is going to be a grumpy one, isn’t it?”

The Standard Delivery is £5.95. (That’s Standard as in surly driver, parking problems, they didn’t say you lived down a one-way street, mate, sign this impossible touch-screen thing could you, and can I use your toilet?) And that is going to cost me effectively £1 a bottle.

So my £4 discount, my 25% discount on six bottles of £16 wine, has suddenly become just a £3 discount. An 18.76% discount.

It could be worse. I could opt for Next day/Named day delivery. That would cost me a swingeing £8.95, or £1.50 a bottle – reducing my discount to just £2.50 a bottle. That’s 15.6%. Name the day? How about Never?

In order to get free delivery, and hence my full 25% off, I would have to order £150 of wine, to get free standard delivery, or £250 to get it free next/named day. £250! That’s 21 bottles of this wine arriving in our hall, like something out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Never mind the cost of the wine, think of the marriage guidance bills.

Oh, but wait for it. The cheapest option, at £3.95, is Click and Collect. Or, as I prefer to call it, Leg it and Lug it.

And that’s 66p a bottle. To leg it myself down the High Road, and lug six bottles back. The cheapest possible way of ordering my six bottles is, basically, self-delivery. For which privilege I still have to pay £4, and be left with a 20.83% discount. Not 25%.

Some people would just have gone ahead and ordered it. Still a discount, still saving money. But that is not the point. The point is that I cannot in any way order my six bottles, and get a 25% discount. That is the point. And I am the one here with the pointer.

If you want to order six bottles and actually get 25% discount, you have to buy six bottles with a full price of at least £22.20 each. Then they will graciously let you pick it up, from them, for nothing.

(And no, I can’t imagine a wine merchant saying, “Are you coming in to collect it? That’ll be £4.”)

I am honestly not some kind of skinflint. It’s just that I had foolishly got it into my head, as I saw the ads, as I began this process, that I would be getting 25% off my six bottles of wine. And then, as with so much in life, disillusionment arrived, in this case in the guise of delivery options.

But, there was one other way of getting an actual 25% off. I took a chance.

I walked down to my nearest branch, and hoped. And what do you know – they did actually have six bottles, the last six bottles, of my wine on their shelves. Which I could buy at a 25% discount, put into my handy (Majestic) six bottle carrier, and lug back home. Without any extra charge for picking it up. So there.

I shall put down my pointing stick now, before I have someone’s eye out.


Thursday, 2 November 2017

Lowest: Pol Rémy

So our pals with the fabulously chi-chi place in the South of France turn up at our house in London, waving a bottle of what looks like champagne: right shape, quality label, tinselly foil on the top. Yes, the name, Pol Rémy, apparently rich in comic deceptions, arouses a bit of a laugh, but that's the French for you.

'How much?' they say. 'How much do you think it cost?'

I scuffle around offering prices starting at €15.00, because I haven't had a chance to get a proper look it; but I also understand that this is some kind of Dutch auction towards an unfeasibly low figure, gasps of astonishment, all-round disbelief. What I don't know is that the unfeasibly low figure is actually €1.99 or possibly €2.99 - there's a moment of crisis here, before we settle for €1.99 - at which point I have to assume that the wine itself is actually in negative price territory, given that the bottling packaging and distribution must have cost €1.99 and surely more. Which makes it, in all probability, the cheapest grog I have drunk this century.

'Scary,' I say, and what we explicitly don't do is show any interest in drinking the stuff there and then.

Which means that it disappears into the Death Row which is my wine rack, only resurfacing when some other people are round, people who like a laugh. Out the stuff comes again and what do you know - it's just a vin mousseux after all? Not only that but it has a plastic bung instead of a cork, which is depressing. And it's only 11% alcohol. But there's no turning back and I serve it up superchilled, as cold as Murmansk, and await results.

Mixed: three out of four of us find the stuff undrinkable - so much so that we actually have to tip it away. It tastes like nasal decongestant. The fourth person in the party, on the other hand, savours the bouquet, holds his glass up to the light, smacks his lips with little pattering sounds.

'Maybe it's the drugs I'm having to take at the moment,' he says, 'but I quite like this. Very pleasant.'

The rest of us shout at him, drugs or no drugs: it's not possible to enjoy Pol Rémy, not even in these terrible times. We make entreating gestures involving our arms and hands, but he carries on quite equably. We give up. He finishes his glass and wonders if there's more. There you go.

Which would have been it for Pol Rémy, except for the fact that I later go to the trouble of looking it up to see if there's any mention of it, anywhere. A nagging desire for reassurance makes me do it: I want any references I come across, to be abusive or derogatory; I want to believe wholeheartedly that this was one of the worst - certainly one of the cheapest - wines I have ever drunk; I also want to be told, implicitly, that it was okay to throw away half a glass of the stuff, something which even in the face of the worst wines, seems somehow immoral.

But no: this place adores it, calling it 'A lovely, clean, zesty wine' and much more, as well as suggesting that you might want to pay $8.99 (New Zealand) a bottle. The next site along is less sanguine, but still manages a 'Good dryness' followed by 'Easy and sweet', which makes me wonder; but even the one after that manages a cautious thumbs-up - although the bottle illustration seems to have changed, plus the price, so perhaps Pol Rémy is more chimerical than I at first thought - a Keyser Söze kind of wine, a wine which means as much or as little as the drinker wants it to and looks different each time. Also the quoted price now ranges from £1.23, which sounds right, to £5 excluding tax, which sounds limitlessly wrong.

So: we end up with a variously-tasting, variously-labelled, variously-priced wine, known generically as Pol Rémy - but appearing all over the place in different styles and at different levels of drinkability, encountered by numerous baffled drinkers, none of whose stories tally. Which, now I think about it, is what wine is, anyway. So I suppose it all works out. And €1.99! You'd have to be mad both to do it and not to.


Thursday, 26 October 2017

A numbers game

I think I’ve found a new favourite red. It’s a lovely 2012 Cotes du Bourg, it’s full and delicious, it’s got heft, it’s £8.50 a bottle, and it’s got a label which doesn’t look like a breakfast cereal. And no, I’m not going to tell you what it is yet, because I want to buy some more while I still can. I just can’t decide whether to get six bottles or twelve.

I’ll get six. I might actually get bored with it if I get twelve. I’ll get six, and then if I’m still enjoying it after that, I’ll get another six.

No, I’ll get twelve. They’re bound to sell out once people discover it, and start appending those crude little online reviews. “Fill your boots!” indeed – what kind of place is that to put your wine??

Ah, but if I get twelve, who’s to say the wine will last? It’s drinking beautifully now, but does that mean it’s at its peak? I might not get through twelve bottles before it starts to fade. Why not get six, and if the last one’s still still drinking well, then get another six?

Because it’s just as much trouble to get twelve! You still have to go through the same delivery rigmarole for twice as much wine! There’s the text: Your wine will be delivered between 10am and 4pm tomorrow. And then there’s the subtext: Between those hours, do not leave the house. Do not take any phone call you will not mind being interrupted. Do not go into the garden where you can’t hear the doorbell. Do not take a bath. Do not go to the toilet.

Whereas, if I order six, I can get them ‘click and collect’ from the supermarket, and I know from experience that I can lug six bottles back by hand the next time Mrs K is out. That will avoid another one of those awkward conversations in the hall. And let’s face it, the cost of twelve is a lot of money to shell out all at once. No, get six; they'll still come in a nice box, even if it is the half-dozen which posh wine merchants call a Pauper's Case.

Oh don’t be silly. Order twelve with a credit card, and you’ll already be enjoying them before you have to pay!

No, don’t go there. Why do they advertise sofas on credit with ‘nothing to pay for the first year’? So after twelve months, when someone’s dropped some food on it, and the arms are starting to look a bit shiny, just as you’re looking at it and removing some more cat hair and thinking how the initial gloss has worn off and you don’t love it quite as much as when they first delivered it… then you start paying for it?

Look, six bottles is nothing. Six bottles won’t fill the yawning gaps in my cellar.

Which, according to Mrs K, don’t exist.

What if it’s about to go on offer? Those discount offers are constant nowadays. If I get 6, the price might drop, and I can get the next 6 cheaper.

But the price might go up! Christmas is coming, nothing’s going to be reduced now until the New Year at least. Inflation’s going up, and when people find out about this wine, the importers will want to cash in. Get it now!

Oh no, I’ve remembered Christmas. I shouldn’t be spending at all with Christmas coming up. I should only get six.

But… Christmas is coming up! People will be drinking, we’ll want bottles to take round to people, bottles for people who come round to us, wine for the wassailers… No, alright, I can’t honestly remember any wassailers in our bit of West London, but we’d better be prepared.

Look, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, so six bottles in the cellar must be worth twelve bottles in the… or I could have twelve in the cellar… Oh for goodness’ sake, just click and do it.

Oh. They’ve sold out.


Thursday, 19 October 2017

China Again: Two Guys In A TV Studio

So, three weeks later, I'm still brooding on modern China because, let's be candid, the place is as persistent as cheap aftershave in its capacity to keep claiming one's attention. What thought in particular tends to recur? Well, it's an image from a Chinese version of The Shopping Channel or QVC, one of those punishment zones on the TV dial where people scream at you from the corner of a dazzling white studio, urging you to buy things. In this case I was sitting in my hotel room, stupefied after a hard day of cultural encounters, while two hyperactive Chinese guys bounced back and forth across the screen in front of a triptych of bearded faces, nineteenth-century portraits from the look of them, Europeans at that, and shouted tirelessly at the camera that what we, the viewers, most needed right now was a discount case of red wine.

Not having any Chinese beyond Nĭ hăo and Xièxiè, how could I be sure that that was what they were doing? Because it was bleeding obvious: they kept gesturing at ziggurats of wine bottles while numbers and ¥ signs chased across the screen, staggering bargains of only ¥500 for twelve, probably Spanish, hence the beards, accompanied by the sales twins actually crashing deliberately into each other for sheer graphic effect. For a moment I thought they were a Chinese Sediment (Chéndiàn) with a lot of stock to clear; but then, a second later, I found myself asking, Do the Chinese really like wine anyway?

Silly question, surely. Every supermarket and liquor store keeps at least few bottles of red (Merlot, often as not) among the beers, baijius and presentation whiskies; hotels aiming for an international vibe like to put a few wine bottles out on show (full or tragically empty, depends on your budget); the Chinese themselves have taken to wine production with a typical emphasis on scale, coming in as the world's sixth largest wine producer in 2016, building mock châteaux (Changyu winery near Beijing) and Italianate castles (Changyu again, this time near Xi'an) while at the same time buying up French vineyards and vintages as if they were toys. Wine has currency right now.

Except, I don't quite believe it. I'm sure in the faubourgs of Shanghai and the penthouses of Hangzhou (where the Aston Martin dealership abuts a Porsche dealer three times its size and the Ferrari showroom is no more than two hundred metres down the same street) they drink fine wines all the time. Elsewhere, though? Chinese urban society, despite its burgeoning middle class, still has a respectably proletarian feel to it. Most people live in small appartments where they tend not to cook at home - instead eating out at one of their many basic neighbourhood eateries (and some of them are really basic, just a hole in the wall with a middle-aged lady and a two-burner stove), no frills, probably not even a drink: you bring your own bottle of tea or water and simply scarf up the grub, checking the WeChat account on your mobile as you go. Bigger eateries, yes, give you more in the way of tables, chairs and ceiling fans and, yes, whole families will be in there, three generations of Chinese all shouting their heads off as they wrestle with the Lazy Susan in the middle of the table, and, yes, the food can be surprisingly delicious and, no, you don't have to be in Sichuan to get internally broiled by devil spices: we were reliably scorched from Hebei Province all the way down and for that, you, or at least I, need beer and lots of it. So, from the look of it, does everyone else.

Which is as much as to say that neither the cuisine nor the eating culture seems that wine-friendly. You just don't see the stuff being drunk. So why all the fuss about China and wine? I like to think that the very high-end purchases (wines and vineyards) are being made as a bet, a classic investors' bubble, the sort of thing the Chinese love; and that everything else, the hectares of fresh domestic vines (some of which have already been grubbed up in favour of more dependable crops) and the gee-whiz fake châteaux that go with them are part of the greater Chinese experimentation with Western style and taste, a tiny moment in three and a half thousand years of unbroken civilisation, but not much more than that.

Perhaps President Xi Jinping will address the issue at this week's Communist  Party Congress in Beijing; although it may tie in with the larger question, Can a society make genuine progress without liberal democracy? Either way, I think we need guidance from the top on this one.


Thursday, 12 October 2017

Whatever…it's rosé

“Do you fancy some rosé with that fish?”

“Ooh! Yes! Where did you buy that from?”

“Ah… I didn’t. Someone must have brought it.”

“One of our visitors, you mean?”

“I assume so. There are a few odd bottles in the cellar…


"… which people have brought round, and I have just stuck down there. And there just happens to be this rosé.”

“Is it any good?”

“How do I know? I didn’t buy it! I mean, it’s not Domaine Templier or anything, that’s for sure. It’s…Whatever…it’s rosé.”

“You could look it up, couldn’t you?”

“I could, yes, but really, what’s the point? I mean, that fish is nearly cooked. And I don’t have another bottle of rosé. How was I to know there was a sunny weekend coming?”

“Well, I got the fish…”

“Yes, but you got that today, from the posh fishmongers, and if I’d suggested today that we got a bottle of rosé, you’d have given me that look.”

“What look?”

“The one which says ‘All you ever think about is wine, can’t you be excited about the fish?’”

“I thought the whole idea of you having a wine cellar was that you had different wines to suit different meals and so on?”

“To an extent, yes. But that extent sort of stops before rosé.”


“Because people don’t really keep rosé.”

“How long have you kept this one, then?”

“I don’t know. That’s not the point. The point is that if I’d bought it while we were out today, it would have been part of a plan, whereas I have come upstairs with this bottle of rosé, and it’s an unexpected treat. Ta da!

“And it is going to be a treat, is it?”

I don’t know! Look, it’s rosé. And this is probably the last time this year we’re going to drink any, and it’s really not worth keeping until next year. So I’m going to open it anyway. Oh.”

“What’s that face for?”

“It’s got a plastic cork. That’s not good.”

“Worse than a screwcap?”

“Probably. It means it’s got ideas above its station. Like a cartridge pen; it’s neither a proper traditional fountain pen, nor an efficient modern Biro. Whatever…it’s rosé”

“Nice colour…”

“That doesn’t mean anything, really. They’re making them paler and paler nowadays. Having said that, you know you’re in trouble when it’s the colour of bubblegum.”

“And what’s it like, then?”

“Could be colder. Rosé could always be colder. Oh. Oh… Still… it’s rosé.”

“Is it really horrible, then?”

“You try it.”

“It’s pretty horrible”

“Yes. Whatever… it’s rosé.”


Thursday, 5 October 2017

China: Harder Than It Looks

So back we come after a month in China and we are shattered, dirty and overwhelmed by massive colds. We have infected an entire 777 on the return flight from Beijing to London and can now barely talk. All we want to do is die in the quiet of our own home. And it is only at this point that I yearn for my bottle of Three Gorges Wine Company 52% liquor, reasoning that not even the Three Gorges liquor can be worse than the way I currently feel and maybe a shot would actually help. Then I remember that I left it in a fridge somewhere in China and anyway, it's truly undrinkable, dead or alive.

I acquired this awful liquid, this Three Gorges baijiu (I think it's known as) at a place called Yichang on the Yangzi River. I paid too much for it (£1.60 for 125 ml); but then again, Three Gorges Wine Company liquor is so bad that a little goes a really long way. I only bought it in the first place because I'd seen other people (blokes, invariably) tucking into variations of the stuff in eateries and restaurants and reasoned That must be just the thing, taken in small quantities, to round off a hard day's sightseeing.

Could not have been more wrong, of course. I don't think I've ever drunk anything so alarming, not even when I was a teenager experimenting with bucket homebrew and amateur wine and White Shield. The one and only time I consumed Three Gorges Wine Company 52% liquor (Lake North Famous Brand Goods it also said in English in small print as a come-on) I was almost blinded. It started off nice and cold from the fridge before exploding into a horrible stale grappa kind of nose after which all I remember is choking helplessly while tears coursed down my cheeks. I was on fire and I was crying and having convulsions. It was authentically frightening. What was in the bottle? Various ingredients had been suggested to me by people along the way, including wheat, rye, rice, grapes, sorghum and barley, but the colourless, slightly viscous end product wasn't really intelligible on account of the coughing and blinding; and even when I wasn't blind I couldn't read the Chinese writing on the label to get a better idea.

Was it just a terrifying one-off? Hard to say. Higher-end variants are heavily advertised on roadside billboards as well as sold in relatively smart liquor shops, so there's nothing unfamiliar about the basic concept. In fact I watched a bunch of local lads in the great city of Tianjin start off their evening meal with a large bottle of baijiu split four ways, followed by three bottles apiece of dependably excellent Tsingtao beer - and still manage to cope with chopsticks and a cauldron of boiling hot bouillon. So, no, my Three Gorges wasn't entirely freakish. Baijiu is apparently the most widely-drunk hard liquor in the world and I just picked a terrible example.

Would I have been better off with one of the local regular wines? A Cabernet Sauvignon from the Great Wall winemakers? A camel-themed rosé whose label I could not construe, but which the translation app on my phone rendered as Drunk Piece? A Chilean red called Legend of Chilephant with an elephant on the label? Yes, of course: they wouldn't have made me cry. On the other hand, I did drink some Changyu sparkling white which looked like wine but tasted just like the Sprite in a neighbouring glass, so maybe it's not as simple as that.

Either way, the experience was pretty emblematic. I mean, China is an astonishing, hugely impressive work in progress, crammed with energies and achievements and modernities barely forty years after the end of the Cultural Revolution; but it's also relentless, fairly bonkers, extremely hard to decode, hugely unrelaxing for the Western tourist. A modest bottle of bathtub hooch turns out to be not a way of unwinding, but an incredibly challenging thing, a threat, an affront to the sensibilities which this traveller did not even begin to anticipate. That and stewed chicken feet for breakfast: we still have so much to learn.


Thursday, 28 September 2017

Take it away…

Let’s just start with this name, shall we? The Takeout. In this country, our food is takeaway. We do not take out meals, except from a fridge. We take away food – we take out rubbish.

So right from the outset, I am prejudiced against a wine which is based on a marketing premise – let’s flog a wine to people ordering food from restaurants to eat at home – and then gets it so simply, linguistically, wrong.

And then they do it again! “Made to take away” it says on the label – well, it’s not, is it? Call me a pedant (and please, while you’re at it, undo that bottom waistcoat button), but if anything, it’s made not to, but for take away, surely? Unless you’re going to nick it from the supermarket.

Actually if, as it suggests elsewhere, you “Enjoy fine dining from the comfort of your couch”, then the wine is emphatically staying in. It’s another matter entirely whether the dining that comes on the back of a moped can conceivably be described as “fine”.

“There’s nothing like a night in,” it says, a reminder which makes me immediately want to go out. Personally I hate ordering a takeaway. I can’t stand the nervous waiting. How long will they be? Have they lost the order? Is that them? Shall I warm the plates up yet? Is that them? I’ll go and have a look through the window. Perhaps they can’t find the house? Is that them? IT’S THEM!

But takeaways are clearly popular. And the most popular in this country are Chinese and Indian. Possibly because both of them are really difficult, and time-consuming, and “pinch of a herb or spice you haven’t got” demanding, to cook upon a whim. Who’s going to order something any fule can cook? Who’s going to stand in the Dragon’s Den and propose a fish finger delivery service?

Unfortunately, in a hitch somehow unforeseen by The Takeout’s marketing department, neither Chinese nor Indian cuisine really pair with Sangiovese, immediately losing them 59% of the UK takeaway market.

The label – indeed, the front label – tells us the dishes with which it does pair. But it regains little ground, since they include fettucine alfredo, a dish patently unsuited to delivery, as its simple ingredients of pasta, melted butter and melted cheese would coagulate on the back of a moped into a sort of yellowish breeze block.  

However, at least we are told the wine does pair well with pizza, our nation’s third favourite takeaway, and a dish with which you can’t really go wrong. Unless someone wants pineapple on it.

And the Takeout has a screwcap, thoughtful when you’re panicking about your delivery getting cold. But beneath it is a pugilistic wine with an acidic edge, lacking not only body or depth, but also the liveliness which Sangiovese can display. Hardly a suitable partner for that “fine dining” they mentioned.

There are so many flaws in this whole concept. In one scenario, you are buying this wine to keep until you have a takeaway delivered at some point in the future, on the evidently false assumption that it will go with whatever you order.

Or, you are actually picking up your takeaway, so you pop into the supermarket to get a bottle of wine to go with it – and bereft of any idea what to get, you buy this because it says it will go with a “takeout”. Although it probably won’t go with yours.

There are many questions around takeaways – such as why does our Indian restaurant always put a little plastic bag of salad in with the dishes they deliver? (You never get salad in the restaurant…)

But there is only one question around The Takeout. Why?


Thursday, 21 September 2017

CJ is away travelling…

…but if you feel deprived of SEDIMENT this week, you might read our guest feature for Female First, in which we take you on a brief if visually cluttered journey through life's 4 Stages Of Wine Drinking

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Is that wine on your t-shirt?

What madness is this? I wander into a good wine merchant in a provincial city, just looking around. (“Can I help you sir?” “No, I’m just looking around…”) And suddenly, I spy a stack of t-shirts. They are branded with the wine merchant’s name. And they are for sale, like some kind of souvenir.

Now, there are a few one-off, internationally celebrated shops to which tourists make a special visit. If you go to Shakespeare & Company in Paris, or C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries in New York, you might possibly want to display their names on a t-shirt back home, to show that you’d been there. For visitors to our capital, that status might just apply to Fortnum & Mason, or to the once-iconic Knightsbridge store we now think of as Horrid. But seriously, would it apply to any of our wine merchants?

It’s one thing producing attractive, reusable bags bearing a wine merchant’s name. These are functional items, not only for carrying home your purchased wine, but for disguising later purchases from embarrassing retailers. Walk up the road with what is clearly six bottles in Asda bags? No thanks; I’ll pop them into my Lea & Sandeman bag-for-life and, for as long as no-one looks inside, try to look like a man of wealth and taste. For half the price of a bottle of their actual wine. 

But are there any wine merchants so aspirational that their names could be displayed on t-shirts like designer brands? Had he actually done so, might CJ have bought a Berry Bros & Rudd t-shirt, to commemorate summoning up the nerve to cross their threshold?  We shall, of course, never know. I suspect, however,that any business flaunting an ampersand would feel it somewhat vulgar to emblazon their name across a t-shirt – as indeed would their customers. We’re unlikely to see t-shirts bearing the names of Corney & Barrow, or Justerini & Brooks; we’ll have to settle for Cuthbert, Dibble & Grub. 

Few of us, surely, would wear a t-shirt emblazoned with the names of, say, Oddbins or Majestic. Unless, of course, we worked there. In which case, it would be less a fashion statement, more a contractual obligation. 

Perhaps other merchants might leap in, creating “witty” slogans for t-shirts? “I’m a Sampler”. “I waited in for Laithwaites”. “How Avery dare you!”. No, let’s stop there, and not even consider what slogans might be created for Virgin, Naked and Rude.

Because this could mark the emergence in wine of what I believe in the music industry is known as merch. I was there!, declares your tour merchandise. I saw Adele! I was in the same (very large) space as the Rolling Stones! I survived a Liam Gallagher gig!

So why not tell the world that you’ve experienced a bottle of Lafite? If you did actually get to drink something like a bottle of DRC, you might well like a t-shirt to commemorate it. Fellow enthusiasts might sidle up to you to discuss it. “Oh, cool man, 2008, remember those top notes?” (Sorry, was that DRC, or Adele?) 

Imagine on a t-shirt the iconic Latour tower, or the year’s Mouton artwork, reflecting your connoisseurship. Or an image of any tasteful label, complete with year, to announce your wine experience. Wearing a wine label on your chest could be like wearing your heart on your sleeve.

Or in CJ’s case, something like a Tough Mudder t-shirt for completing an assault course. “I finished this bottle of bottom-shelf Shiraz and lived to tell the tale”

But the wine is not the same as the merchant, is it? Been there, done that, got the t-shirt should not apply to visiting a wine merchant, however gruelling the experience might be. I hope these wine merchants are not suggesting that a visit to their store is so arduous that you deserve a t-shirt to show that you survived it.

Unless perhaps it’s to identify repeat customers, so that by wearing a t-shirt they stop asking, as soon as you cross the threshold, if they can help you. Now, that’s something for which I would be happy to pay £8.99.


Thursday, 7 September 2017

Naming Wines: Let's Use Science!

So the dream of letting Artificial Intelligence design wine names has come a fraction closer: I have been in correspondence with the excellent Janelle Shane, wondering if her neural networks (which have had such success generating paint charts and craft beers) might work with wines. Her take on it? At this early stage, yes, all things are possible. There is some nervousness about stepping outside the world of, basically, Anglo-Saxon nomenclature; so Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and America are going to provide the basic structures - although some snippets of French may eventually creep in. Also, to work at all properly the neural networks need lots and lots of existing names to learn from, hundreds of the things. Back to me, and the next question: How to create such a list?

After an hour of persistent thought, I only have one idea, which is to physically comb through the lists of the big suppliers and supermarkets, churning through their Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and North America entries by hand, copying and pasting until my head swims. Oh, and some English wines, why on earth not? Well, I can already see why not, given that it seems utterly counter-intuitive to cobble together a list of brand names painstakingly by hand, like some piece worker from the nineteenth century, only to deliver the fruits of this drudging manual harvest to a cutting-edge twenty-first century machine and have it instantaneously translated into The Future. I might as well go out and pick the sloes from the hedges, it'd be just as time-consuming and tedious, but at least I'd have some sloes at the end, which I could then turn into a drink. Although on the debit side of that idea, most of the sloe gin I've ever made has tasted terrible, so perhaps the comparison is less watertight than I think. And, on the other hand, if I do go through the list, name-picking by hand, then maybe, just maybe, Ms. Shane's miracle program will create something so new and vibrant that the whole world will be enriched, just a tiny bit, and God knows we need something to brighten our days. My sacrifice, I start to tell myself, will be for the good of mankind.

After that, of course, I experience another small crisis when it occurs to me that I will have to taxonomise the wines as I go, but what taxonomy to use? I mean, I could just do all reds and all whites and leave it at that, a more or less random selection. But in her terrific craft beer re-stylings, Ms. Shane has already pinned the beers down to categories such as IPA, Stout and so on. A mere shopping-list of wines names isn't going to be enough to keep her happy, I can feel it. So how to divvy them up in anticipation? By principal grape? By price? By sub-region (although that sounds unnecessarily granular to me, all that Barossa Valley stuff)? By style - robust, medium-bodied, lightweight? By reference to topographical feature as mentioned on the label (valley, creek, ridge, hill, river) or colour (yellow, silver, ink, limestone, unless that's topography) or animal (dog, eagle, kangaroo, bird, whale, horse, I could go on) or even simply alcoholic strength? And what about all those characterful place names which to some extent already sound like fabrications - Kangarilla, Waimea, Oxney, Boschendal - how do I insinuate them into the Big List? Would the craft beer experiment have got off the ground if the neural networks had been given Bofferding as a building-block? How, come to think of it, could anything sound less plausible than Wirra Wirra Church Block, currently available at Tesco?

No, hold on, the thing is, given the amount of dumb toil ahead of me, I want as little mental involvement as possible. I don't want to have to check the alcohol count or find out if it's an easy-drinking medium white or even make great inroads into the grape variety. So it's going to be country and that's that. All right, country and colour.

I make a start. After about fifteen minutes with an on-line supermarket wine list, I have twenty-seven reds. I would have done it in ten minutes, but for the fact that the formatting on the web page kept invading my basic document and I had to scrub out images of bottles and presumptuous text alignments. Assuming I get better at it: twelve minutes for every twenty-five names; that's a hundred and twenty-five names in an hour, not too bad. Two, two and a half hours should give me most of what I need, assuming that there are two hundred and fifty-odd different Anglophone wines out there. Oh, and then I'll have to check for duplications. Still. Two and a half hours. That's less than it takes to watch Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris from beginning to end, so really, how hard can it be?


Thursday, 31 August 2017

Spot the difference?

A fish supper in the offing, and 25% off six bottles at Sainsbury’s – game on! So I check the Guardian’s incomparable Fiona Beckett, who recommends the “lusciously creamy” McGuigan Founder’s Series Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2015. “Snap it up if you ever see it on promotion,” she says.   So I make it snappy.

McGuigan, eh? CJ territory. He once inflicted upon me some eye-watering McGuigan Shiraz, for which they must have interpreted from their namesake boxer the term 'pugilistic'. So I am perhaps understandably cautious. 

But I trust the magnificent Ms Beckett completely, and approach the hitherto neglected display of their wines. And I experience the wariness of a traveller presented with a foreign currency, whose banknotes all seem to look the same.

Her recommendation sits proudly on the top shelf. With a unique bottle and distinctive label, it stands out. And of course, she is spot on; it turns out to be a rich, creamy Chardonnay, a smooth and tasty Bridget Jones comfort blanket.

But what astonishes me is the array of barely distinguishable McGuigan Chardonnays on the shelves below.

There was their Estate at £4.95; their Classic at £5.50; and their Reserve at £6. Their Founder’s was on promotion indeed at £9 (reduced from £11); and then there was their Shortlist at £14. That’s five Chardonnays, with a £9 difference in price per bottle, or 260%, between bottom and top.

Now, I’m old enough to remember when European wines were considered “difficult”, when people thought it was hard to grasp the difference between Burgundy and Bordeaux, let alone their various classifications. So forgive me if I’m somewhat baffled by things at this lower, New World end of the market; but there, I thought, matters were supposed to be more straightforward.

These McGuigan brands, to me, are meaningless. Bin, Classic, Reserve, Estate, Release, Private; they are all just interchangeable terms used to suggest quality in wine. None sounds inherently superior to another. You could equally well combine them; Classic Release; Reserve Bin; Classic Reserve; Private Bin. Oh, they’ve actually used that one.

And the labels are as neutral as their names, just a kaleidoscope of parts. If there’s some hierarchy of white over silver or vice versa, it’s lost on me. Does a lion suggest better quality than a signature? What about half a lion, like a misplaced wax seal? Or a silver lion? Or a lion’s signature?

No, the only guidance discernible to me is one of price. This one must be “better” (whatever that means) because it costs 50p more. Like the famous Class sketch,  it looks down on one, but up to another. It sits on a higher shelf.

Now, if you go to Volkswagen, it’s pretty clear why a Golf is more expensive than a Polo. And in case you can’t see the difference, there are specifications to explain why one costs more than the other. So I turn for similar guidance to the UK website  where McGuigan list details of 66 – count ‘em, 66! – wines, including 10 pure Chardonnays alone.

The Founder’s Series, I discover, is “a celebration of the four generations of the McGuigan family, who have made wine their life… the pursuit of producing quality wine… this spirit and commitment to sourcing quality fruit”.

Similar, then, to the Signature brand, of which it says: “The McGuigan family has been making great quality Australian wine for generations, sourcing premium fruit from Australia’s best wine regions. The Signature range is a reflection of this history and commitment to creating wines of great quality and style”

While the Family Release, the clue perhaps being in the name, identifies itself with “The McGuigan Family love affair with wine [which] has passed through the generations and continues today with chief winemaker, Neil McGuigan. Family Release stands as Neil’s recognition of the McGuigans that came before him.”

Credit to one’s forefathers and all that, but that’s quite a lot of indistinguishable celebration, recognition and reflection of effectively the same thing.

And what about taste?

You might, for example, want to choose between the Bin Chardonnay, and the Signature Chardonnay. Best of luck with that. The Bin “is a fresh and crisp Chardonnay with flavours of white peach and ripe nectarine. It has a nice fresh finish and lingers on the palate.” Whereas the Signature “is a fresh and vibrant Chardonnay with flavours of white peach and ripe nectarine. It has a nice crisp finish and lingers on the palate.“

Or you might be weighing up the Classic against the Family Release.  The Classic: “This fresh and fruity Chardonnay has intense stone fruit and citrus character, complimented by subtle oak and a crisp finish.”. Against the Family Release: “This fresh and fruity Chardonnay has intense stone fruit and citrus character, complimented by a subtle oak and a crisp finish.” Don’t even try – the descriptions are, in fact, identical.

So how do you choose which one you want? Not by interchangeable name or undifferentiated label, by indistinguishable heritage, by similar or indeed identical tasting notes.

Presumably, you decide by price, the one clearly differentiating factor. And trust that the wine improves in corresponding increments of 50p a bottle.

Never was that old saying more appropriate – you pays your money, and you takes your choice. Of shelves.


Thursday, 24 August 2017

Co-Op Off-chance: Bonarda Shiraz

So I need a couple of bottles of cheap grog and the only place open at this time of day in distant Hampshire on a Sunday evening is the neighbourhood Co-Op. We also, as it turns out, need butter, milk, two pounds of steak, cake, three days' worth of salad, olive oil, cashew nuts, washing-up liquid, our own weight in potatoes, paper napkins, just about everything, in fact. My wife starts talking emotionally about asparagus, but I think we'll be pressed to find much more than a factory pasty out here in the sticks.

Turns out I'm wrong, yet again, and the Co-Op - which is no bigger than the cab of a Transit van and full of other customers, too - has, amazingly, most of what we need and several things we don't. I aim myself like a javelin at the wine end of the shop and come back brightly clutching a South African Chardonnay-Viognier mix and a bottle of Argentinian Bonarda Shiraz; both in the right indigent price range and with screw tops and cheerful packaging.

Much later, I get to drink them. The Bonarda Shiraz is like any regular gluey, halitotic, buttonholing Argentinian red but with just a hint of self-control: something to do with this Bonarda stuff, about which I know nothing? Likewise the Chardonnay-Viognier (why the hyphen? The red has to get by without one) is not only fine in its way, it's a tiny bit more assertively refreshing than I usually expect from a crumbum discount supermarket Chardonnay. That extra Viognier goodness, presumably.

By now, of course, I am completely in thrall to the Co-Op, who have not only got me out of a wineless jam, but have produced a nice white and introduced me to Bonarda, which is apparently taking Latin America by storm, enough even to outdo the loathsome Malbec in the easy-drinking reds section. I then wonder why I don't normally come across these very slightly intriguing two-grape mashups in my regular wine drinking. Apart from the odd Syrah/Grenache or Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, most of the time I seem to be slumped in a drab monoculture of Tempranillo or Sangiovese or Shiraz or Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir, or whatever. Can it only be the Co-Op hosting such products?

Given that, for reasons beyond my control, Waitrose is my default wine supermarket, I decide to check their listings to see if there's any evidence to back up my suspicions. Well: at my end of the price spectrum, yes, there are an awful lot of one-stop Merlots and Shirazes and Malbecs and the odd Cabernet Sauvignon; once, a Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz mix, but not much else. A bit more variety among the whites, with a Chardonnay/Viognier on special offer and a Chenin Blanc/Pinot Grigio which might or might not be a good thing, but elsewhere it's still kind of unidirectional - Soave, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, only starting to show a bit of initiative up in the near-£8 range, with a Picpoul de Pinet (actually quite nice when it's on offer) and a Muscadet (ditto), but nothing genuinely experimental. So, to an extent, my doubts are confirmed.

Sainsbury's (my other default winemart) is worryingly similar, only a cheap Merlot/Grenache and a less cheap Sauvignon Blanc/Semillion doing much to ring the changes. I can't face trawling through Tesco and all the rest to see what intriguing novelty blends they might have - which leaves me where I started, wondering only if I've made some fundamental good/bad category error and the Co-Op stuff which I thought was refreshingly different was merely a) different b) so incredibly and unexpectedly welcome on a Sunday in the provinces that I would have loved it if it had tasted like the inside of a foot spa. Also worrying that I've been duped by the guile of marketing shills into believing that I was getting something brightly toothsome to drink when in fact I was being fobbed off with assortments of under-the-radar wine that no-one could find a use for, tipped into more conventional and therefore marketable grape varieties merely in order get rid of the oddball stuff while at the same time bulking the acceptable stuff out.

Before my head starts throbbing with the involuted deviousness of it all, I decide to stop and take a stand: yes, this drink was affordable, timely and tasty; trying to second-guess the motives of the Co-Op is not only mean-spirited, but futile; let's just be grateful for small mercies, while at the same time, making a mental note to look out for wines that dare, in their own ways, to be cost-effectively slightly different. And now, on to more important matters.