Thursday, 20 April 2017

Can we pardon Aldi's French?

I once imagined that I might arrive at a station in life and be quietly alerted to attention-worthy wine arrivals. “Just thought you might like to know, old chap, there’s a couple of cases of rather well-priced claret coming in next week which might interest you…” 

Well, thanks to Sediment, people do now tell me about wines. “This is right up your aisle,” tweets @Simonnread. Unfortunately, it turns out he is referring to a new range of wines from Aldi.

But off I trot to my nearest branch, unerringly guided by following the descent of planes on the Heathrow flight path. Perhaps the station in life for which I am destined is indeed Hounslow Central.

Aldi's new Pardon My French range presents four French wines, each “cheekily” labelled with a kind of phonetic interpretation of their appelation. It’s what they call an “accessible” range, either because it only costs £4.99 a bottle, or because it clearly targets idiots. In fact it’s hard to decide who it insults more, the French and their language or the Aldi shopper and their intelligence.

For example, the Minervois is called Men Are From Mars. Why? Have we really sunk to the level at which we make fun of the way words in other languages sound? And even if you say menarefromMars very very quickly, it hardly sounds like Minervois. In fact, it is actually harder to say.

Ironically, as I struggle through the overcrowded aisles, I see that Aldi customers are already a linguistically sophisticated bunch. They must be, to distinguish between Shredded Wheat and, adjacent to it, Wheat Shreds. Between Nutella and the cheaper Nutoka. There is a range of instant stuffing called Quixo, which rings some kind of phonetic bell.

Or is it only the French language with which the customers are supposed to be challenged? Because I see gnocchi, and chorizo Ibérico, and a pizza with schiacciata salami. If they can manage those, surely they can manage Fitou?

But no; in the Pardon My French range, Fitou becomes Fit You. Of course, I think immediately of TS Eliot’s use in The Waste Land of the line from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, “Why then Ile fit you”. Like many Aldi customers, I’m sure.

Does calling a wine Fit You make it in any way more appealing, more “accessible”, than calling it Fitou? Or does it just sound like a sneeze?

Their Ventoux is renamed Want To, an absurdity of a phrase. If you’re going down that route, why not call it Want Two, which at least makes some kind of sense, and suggests people might like it and desire more? But no; it’s Want To. It doesn’t even begin with a V, a sound widely and easily pronounced in this country, as in the now-common phrase, “Gregg Wallace no longer feels the need to wear a shirt on Masterchef, and instead appears in his vest."

And their Cotes de Gascogne is called Gastronomy. I suppose we should be grateful they didn’t simply rename it after Gazza.

Having driven to Hounslow Aldi to get them, I felt some kind of duty to taste all four of these aberrations. That Cotes de Gascogne has an initial elderflower taste which evaporates immediately, leaving only a faint lemony tang and a claggy feel as it warms up. The Ventoux is acrid, cheek-puckering and bitter. After an initial aggressive blast, the Minervois is flabby and flavourless, like a diluted cordial. And the Fitou is oily, flat and feeble, and labouring under a bouquet of Elastoplast. They are all, as Aldi might say, Mayored.

A spokesman from Aldi told the Mirror: “There’s no doubt that France produces some of the best wines in the world”.Well, if this was all the French wine I had tasted, there would be doubt in my mind  

He went on to say that “we really believe these wines have a certain ‘je ne sais quoi.'" Which he presumably doesn’t expect his customers to understand. Or did he mean to say ‘Juno say choir’?

Pardon My French? Sorry, no.


Thursday, 13 April 2017

Horrible Cheap Wines: A User's Half-Guide

So having got through my gutbucket Tesco indulgence (least worst turned out to be the generic Chardonnay, worst by a mile the Spanish red) and not yet having claimed my Brother-in-Law's booze run offerings (this weekend, I'm hoping) I am drifting a bit and therefore naturally prey to the first piece of cheapskate news that comes my way. Which turns out, equally naturally, to come from PK, who draws my attention to this from Majestic Wine: a bid to get properly stuck into the Cadbury's Creme Egg sector of the wine trade, with a choice of price-pointed, fun-loving, cartoon-driven generics, including, worryingly, a Spanish red and a Chardonnay with a picture of two cartoon men wearing comedy fruit headpieces.

Normally, I'd say yes to all this, because, after all, cheap'n'cheerful is exactly what I live for and will, in all probability, die of. There's something melancholy, though, about Majestic being reduced to cartoons of men in fruit costumes or their underpants in order to cop a piece of Tesco's business - because, back in their prime, the point of Majestic was that they found you entertaining, affordable grog which was every bit as entertaining and affordable as I'm sure their new Majestic Loves range will turn out to be; but which looked, and sometimes tasted, as if it had come from somewhere other than a huge industrial zone outside Valencia. I suppose you could say it had, or appeared to have, charm, once.

But this is where we are and I'm sure next time I'm in Majestic I will be drawn ineluctably towards the brightly-coloured junk at one end of the store with a view to wasting £5.99 multiplied by x, where x is > 1 but < 6. But then it occurs to me, not just that Majestic are being forced to try and out-supermarket the supermarkets, but that horrible cheap brazen wine is now so ubiquitous, especially in my world, that I must have evolved some kind of mechanism for choosing between these various rubbishes, something other than the point where cheapjack marketing meets blind chance.

So, after some head-scratching, I come up with three cardinal considerations: colour, bottling, provenance. When going downscale, red is always the first choice. Miraculously, a red can be both disgusting and yet just this side of drinkable. Yes, I've applied this rule too many times not to be caught out by it, but that's where I stand: especially if the alternative is white, which can be okay if you freeze it to the point at which it hurts your hand but which otherwise is nothing more than dirty alcoholic rainwater. Moreso with sparkling whites - something about the bubbles increases the toxicity, hard to escape even if you chill the stuff to a near-solid. And on no account should anyone touch a crap rosé. I don't know what it is about that drink: I've drunk some appalling rosés for which I've paid £7 or more, and the cheap ones are every bit as awful, only with an extra tramp-like hogo coming off them. And don't even mention Zinfandel Blush, the party squeaker of still wines.

Bottling? A nice label is what it's all about. Too spartan and/or gimmicky and it galls you every time you look at it. Too fastidious - drypoint Provençal mas, hand-turned lettering, date - and it acts as a tart reminder of how much distance there is between it and the thing it's a gutter variant of. But (depending on taste) a bit of playfulness can really lift your spirits even as your mouth tells you another story. That Le Réveil Cabernet Sauvignon which goes for around the magic £5.99 is pretty rough, but the label's so cute you can forgive it almost anything.

And the provenance? Lidl, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Aldi, they all do perfectly okay trash wines if you stick to £5.99 and not allow yourself to be tempted much lower. Asda and M & S Food, I'm not sure; the Co-op is usually somewhere out in the sticks and therefore too small to have a range. Waitrose, on the other hand, is emphatically a bad place for your garbage drinking needs because they aim their produce at an imaginary clientele which entertains lifestyle choices and confidently splashes £8 + on its everyday wines, with the result that anything off the bottom shelf is beneath its contempt, literally. It is, however, my nearest full-sized supermarket - a two-minute walk from the front door. And it sells Le Réveil. The upshot? I have spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds on my cheap drinking habits in there, over the years: a contradiction which, alone, may account for my current dismal state. I think The Guide may need more work.


Thursday, 6 April 2017

This sceptic's aisle

Don’t you just love reports and surveys which seem to bear no similarity to your own experience?

We have just been told that there are high levels of customer satisfaction in the retail experience of buying wine in a supermarket. That customers are happily “lingering” in the wine aisle. And that we find shopping in the supermarket for wine almost, but not quite, as enjoyable as shopping for cheese at the deli counter.

Where to start…?

I hesitate to begin sentences with the phrase “Am I the only person…”, because it invariably turns out that I am. But am I the only person who hates purchasing cheese from the deli counter?

Waiting and waiting, trying to remember who was before you (because the old ‘take a numbered ticket’ system seems to have been relegated to the grimmest of hand-out queues). And trying to remember who was after you, because there’s going to be a background of tutting and sighing throughout your service if it’s that posh-looking bloke with just a bachelor’s basket.

There are the agonies of trying to order the right amount – a bit less than that…no, a bit more than that… no, just a bit more…It’s harder than directing someone to scratch your back. And “Would you like a taste?” No, actually, I wouldn’t, because I don’t usually start my day with Stilton.

And the whole ghastly experience is surrounded by the suspicion that it’s exactly the same stuff that’s wrapped in plastic on the aisles, only given some kind of artisan sheen by carving it in front of you.

So the wine aisle has got a pretty low enjoyment threshold to surpass as far as I’m concerned. Sadly, it fails even that.

What is this “lingering” nonsense? People aren’t “lingering” in the wine aisle, they’re paralysed with indecision. They’re overwhelmed with choice. They’re frozen with incomprehension, like Victorians watching a jet plane.

It’s like this. You don’t “linger” in a polling booth. You’ve gone in, expecting to make your decision between three, maybe four well-known names. And suddenly there are all these strange alternatives; Homes Not Roads, Roads Not Homes, H’Angus the Monkey, Lord Buckethead of the Gremloids, Douglas Carswell. There’s even a whole second sheet, for a simultaneous local election that you didn’t even know was happening, as confusing as an unexpected special offer on Chilean reds.

And you’re overwhelmed with opportunities. Suddenly there are options you didn’t even know existed. This is choice overload.

In the wine aisle, there are even more unexpected possibilities. Look, that one’s half price – or is it really? Is that the one I read about, or not? Oh sod it, shall I settle for that one again? “Coming, dear, just coming… I’ll catch you up…” You’re going to get it wrong. You’re not lingering, you’re panicking.

No, all that “lingers” in my supermarket wine aisle is a faint air of desperation. Or is it disinfectant?

How, after all that, can people find shopping for wine in a supermarket “enjoyable” and “satisfying”? Only because there’s a powerful sense of anticipation, of enjoyment to come, which doesn’t generally apply in the aisle of kitchen rolls. Unlike many household purchases, you believe that your supermarket wine will bring you positive pleasure. Which really is a triumph of hope over experience.

Please, don’t tell supermarkets that they will benefit if they “invest in making the wine aisle an enjoyable place for shoppers to linger.” God knows what obstacles they will conceive to keep us there for longer. Jugglers? Magicians? Comfy chairs, to sit and peruse the Wall of Wine?

Or perhaps they’ll just move the Saturday assistant over from the cheese counter. To hand you a bottle when you point to it, rather than let you pick it up yourself.

The next time Shopper Intelligence explore something like this, I suggest they involve someone more appropriate in their research. Like an intelligent shopper.


Thursday, 30 March 2017

Tesco's Worst and Best: Spanish, Italian and Something Else

So I've just paid a load of money into the bank and am feeling dangerously flush. It occurs to me for about the third time in my life that instead of celebrating by going out and buying a dozen pairs of socks or a second-hand external hard drive - something useful, in other words - I could treat myself to a bottle of posh wine. That's what PK would do, after all, and what doesn't he know about lifestyle?

But even as I weigh up the possibilities (nice French red, maybe a decent Chianti for once, or one of those flash New Zealand whites) a friend emails me with the news that Tesco are knocking out own-brand wines for £3.50 a bottle and I should get down there before they all disappear. Not just any friend, but the maniac behind the tanker wine idea and, more recently, Sediment:The Sitcom, so I know it's for real. As he also notes, £3.50 is cheaper per litre than roof sealant, Brasso and Mr Muscle, as well as being a mere 51p short of the classic 1980's price point of £2.99.

Which is when I realise that not only has Tesco got some cheap muck in, but, in an incredible piece of synchronicity, my Brother-in-Law is actually in the process of doing his annual booze run to Calais, in the course of which he has promised to get me a couple of bottles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on offer at £2.99 a bottle. This is one of those moments when you feel the hand of Fate resting on your shoulder, a moment in which you say to yourself, This is my Destiny, like Michelangelo, or whoever, an understanding that this is the path mapped out for you and that you must take it or die. Or take it and die. Either way, you cannot deny your true calling. It is a big moment; and I discard at once any ideas of going upscale.

Instead I get down to the nearest big Tesco and scarf up a bottle of Tesco Spanish Red, a Tesco Italian Red and a Tesco generic Chardonnay, all at £3.50 a go. Actually, there are a couple of Lambruscos at £2.50 a bottle, but there's something clearly very wrong with a beverage that low on the evolutionary scale - even I can see that - so I give them a wide berth and head purposefully for home. Given that the duty + VAT on a bottle of wine at this end of the range is about £3, this leaves 50p for the producer/bottler, as well as Tesco's mark-up - assuming they are selling this stuff at a profit and not just getting rid of a terrible purchasing decision as fast as they can - which is enough to give me pause for thought at a roundabout; but, no, I've been here before, I can cope.

Half an hour later I find myself at the kitchen table with a ham and cheese sandwich and the Spanish Red, something of stand-off developing. Turns out the red comes in at 11% and is a Product of Spain, not even produce, a distinction I find troubling, but I take a deep breath and get stuck in. Bleeding gums raspberry colour, zero nose, followed by grapefruit, insoles, old flower water, some sulphur and a brief up yours of acidity. Perhaps better once I've left it overnight, I reflect. At any rate, I have three cheap bottles of disappointing wine to get through, rather than one equally but differently disappointing bottle for a tenner; so things are about where I expected them to be, and for a properly stoical wine drinker that's good.

More than that, though: also open (and now well into its third sullen day) is a bottle, by way of comparison, of Argentinian Beefsteak Club Malbec which I bought on offer from Waitrose but which has a full retail price of £8.79 - two and a half times the Tesco stuff. This Malbec is rank, sweaty, rebarbative, nothing appealing about it, not even the label, which bafflingly declares Beef & Liberty in stencil-effect red uppercase - a Nigel Farage kind of rubric which only makes things worse. But at the same time it consoles me: it is lousy and overpriced; while the Tesco is lousy and the right price, by virtue of which it becomes no longer lousy, merely adequate. And this is all fine. The spring sunshine has come out, I didn't crash the car on the way to or from the supermarket, the outcome of my trip is almost exactly as I anticipated it, my game remains firmly unraised. In these troubled times, I call that a result.


Thursday, 23 March 2017

Everyday China – Changyu Noble Dragon

China is not well known for its wine – which, of course, means nothing. Just because something’s not well known doesn’t mean there isn’t someone who knows it well. Don’t even try and dismiss the wines of an oenologically-challenged country – Greenland, say, or Bangla Desh. Because there’s always some smart-arse pops up, saying “How dare you dismiss their wines!

“Obviously you haven’t tried tried Hiffen-Liffen, that rare blend of Triffen and Whiffen, let alone the extraordinary Mujid-Pujid or the languid Mesut Ozil.

“You really are displaying your ignorance.  Presumably you’ve never even been there! Do you just buy your wines from the supermarket?” Well, largely, yes.

But fortunately, a supermarket is now allowing me to satisfy this particular smidgen of curiosity – because here is Changyu’s Noble Dragon, China’s mass-market red wine, being sold in Sainsbury’s.

Immediately, a bottle of Noble Dragon presents some talking points. That irritating flange/lip/thing at the neck of the bottle, which means that some corkscrews won’t work on it. An odd little plastic imitation of a wax seal, stuck onto the top of the cork, which doesn’t actually seal anything. And pictograms everywhere, which for all I know might be either pairing recommendations, or hazardous liquid warnings.

But at the same time it’s extraordinary how they’ve picked up all the clichés of traditional European wine labelling. There’s the drypoint-like image of the “chateau” in Yantai. There’s the use of Germanic and script typefaces. There’s the reassurances of heritage (‘Since 1892…”) and quality. “Eighty years of quality assurance” – sounds like the Prudential.

There’s a little map of China on the back label, because, of course, we should know exactly where in China it comes from, in case we expected something from a neighbouring appellation.

And could it be deliberate, to reinforce the distance, the otherness of this wine, that, given the wealth and resources of the company, the English on the back label is surprisingly poor? “It is round and smooth in mouth, acting elegantly as a full bodied wine.”

It has, as they used to say of actor Karl Malden, quite a nose.  It reminds me of those mornings after, when one had to face the fragrance of a full ashtray. Then there is some initial cherryish action going on, but it’s quite shallow in flavour. Finally there’s a very dry finish, followed by quite a bitter aftertaste.

This is the biggest-selling wine in the world; in 2015, it sold 450 million bottles, more than the entire output of Rioja. Which, frankly, I would prefer to possess.

This could be a cheap wine from anywhere, really, although a cheap wine from anywhere would give you more change out of a tenner. Noble Dragon gives you none. Which means its curiosity value is about £4.01, the amount you’re paying on top of a similar cheap Chilean Cabernet.

Given the success rate of supermarkets at selecting wines from anywhere else, there is no reason to assume this is representative of the quality Chinese wine can achieve. But at least my curiosity has been resolved. Mind that dead cat.


Thursday, 16 March 2017

Great Wine Moments In Movie History IX: Topsy-Turvy (1999)

As a rule, I find most of Mike Leigh's films completely unwatchable - his Happy-Go-Lucky of 2008 being about as bad as a film can get when it comes to tin-eared dialogue, lethargy-inducing mise en scène and dimwit characterization - and yet he has, in some kind of illustration of a basic human law, managed to produce a couple of really, really good movies - both period pieces: the authentically tragic Vera Drake (2004); and the authentically dazzling Topsy-Turvy - the story of how Gilbert and Sullivan got their groove back with The Mikado. And yes, in Topsy-Turvy, there is wine.

More accurately, drink punctuates the movie: a quiet index of the characters' situations and expectations, as meaningful as the clothes they wear and the expressions on their faces. Which means that when, about fifty minutes in, we observe the actress Leonara Braham (unflinchingly played by Shirley Henderson) slumped in her dressing-room, filling a wine-glass brimful of neat bourbon and staring abstractedly into its depths, we know not just that something is wrong, but that it is terribly wrong.

After all, Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) has been seen embracing the virtues of champagne (in a Parisian brothel); and some kind of high-end Burgundy, from the look of it, in a supersmart restaurant, where he inks his share in the new Savoy Hotel being built by D'Oyly Carte. His drink is a mark of licentiousness or high prosperity - in contrast with the stuff that W. S. Gilbert goes for. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent on pure top form) is prickly, diligent, obsessed with getting the small things right, keen not to waste money; tea and coffee are therefore his motifs, their sobriety only lessened when Sullivan - in one scene - plies him with a sugar-cube. Oh, and to round out the drinks selection, three of the younger male leads get stuck into some Guinness and oysters about half-way through the film; with hilarious consequences.

All of which is framed so thoughtfully, in such measured filmic terms, with such grave opulence, that it doesn't take much to disturb the surface richness. George Grossmith shooting up in his dressing-room is about the most shocking image; the actors' strike is almost as arresting, although for rather different reasons; Leonara Braham getting loaded and maudlin is another kind of backstage disruption, much bigger in impact than it has any right to be. As it happens, Miss Braham was in real life both a drunk and the mother of a clandestine child, even though her position in the company depended on her way with ingenue soprano roles. 'When I meet a gentleman, he invites me to supper,' she murmurs on-screen through her cigarette smoke, 'I mention my little secret - and then he's off, quick smart.' Her son, her 'Precious little bundle', is a tragedy as well as a justification for living - a situation which mirrors the bleak inability of the established, well-to-do Gilberts to conceive a child; as well as Sullivan's tendency to get his mistress pregnant before having the unborn child discreetly got rid of.

All of which is contained in the way Shirley Henderson aims her moue at the rim of her glassful of hard liquor, in the way she holds the glass close to her, tenderly resting it on her bodice, her fondling of the glass binding ideas of drink and maternal affection in one image. Which in turn is put into context by all the other visual references to cups, glasses, beakers and carafes littering the frame; which in their turn are all parts of the complex, crowded, visual texture of the film, whose genius is to reveal how all this density and complexity can be shaped into something as apparently air-light and uniform as The Mikado - or, if you want to go down that road, as coherent and satisfying as Topsy-Turvy itself. The glass is nothing, just a tiny part of the pattern, but on this occasion you've got to hand it to Mike Leigh: he really knows how to fill a picture with meaning.


Thursday, 9 March 2017

Preserved for posterity – Jancis v Sediment

The University of California has acquired the archive of Jancis Robinson; forty years of wine tasting notes, her travel notebooks, notes on Chateau Latour, invitations from the Queen, personal correspondence and published articles. A feature in the San Francisco Chronicle explained the acquisition  by saying that “Robinson invented ways to be a wine writer that had never existed before”,

This is clearly also true of Sediment, which similarly invented ways of being a wine writer which had never existed before, viz. while knowing little to nothing about wine.

So perhaps there is some former Poly, or one of the poorly supported council libraries, which would be interested in acquiring the Sediment archive?

At the heart of the Sediment archive is a treasure trove of crumpled supermarket receipts. These provide a fascinating glimpse into the authors’ wine-buying habits; they document the seesawing prices of discounted supermarket wines, and provide historians with precise documentation of the dates of “25% off six bottles” offers.

The receipts record the pitifully low sums which the authors regularly spent on their wines, illustrated further by a marked-up list from Majestic, a booklet from Lidl and some sort of leaflet which came through the door from Waitrose.

The archive pinpoints increasingly hard-to-find retailers such as Threshers, Nicolas and Oddbins, and tracks the relentless rise of CJ’s pricepoint from £5 to the heady heights of £6.99, while the sorry state of wine deliveries is recorded by a collection of “While you were out…” cards.

There are, sadly, no notes on Chateau Latour; if there were, they would probably be “Can’t afford it” from PK and, from CJ, “What?” But then, the Jancis Robinson archive probably lacks notes on Sainsbury’s Basic, “reminiscent of alcohol and wet carpet, like the aftermath of a student party”. 

And here are all of the other original Sediment tasting notes, in handwriting whose deteriorating legibility provides confirmation that the authors didn’t just consider wines; they consumed them.

There are fascinating similarities; Jancis’s notes on Latour employ the descriptive term “open”, which Sediment also use, having decided it was helpful to “open” most of their wines.

One can see in her notes on Latour comparisons like “red fruits”, “cheese” and “violets”. Sediment’s points of comparison reflect more of a quintessential Englishness, referring to such evocative national products as Airwick, Flash and Copydex, in notes such as “acrid, nasal – like crushed insects in Brasso”.

Sediment’s invitation from the Queen sadly seems to have gone astray. However, there is one from the Prime Minister, a moment at which PK believed he would achieve new status in wine drinking, only to be offered a glass of Campo Viejo. 

And, perhaps distinguishing itself from the Jancis archive yet again, the Sediment archive does contain an invitation from ASDA, to a tasting event at which CJ “sat bathed in mute and baffled dread.” Which could explain the absence from the archive of any other invitation from any other supermarket. 

Here finally is the original manuscript for the Sediment book. It makes fascinating reading, with particular reference to the amendments required by lawyers, including exchanges over the potentially libellous use of words such as “emetic”. The archive allows scholars to identify the retailers that the authors were not allowed to describe as “dreary” and “charmless”, and the producer whose wine could not be described as “rust remover”.

What will students find, asked the San Francisco Chronicle, when they encounter the Jancis documents? “I think it will be an interesting snapshot into where wine was,” Robinson says.

Sediment already know where wine was – it was in the bottle, then it was in the glass, then it was, somewhat briskly, gone –  but their archive offers an alternative snapshot of everyday wine drinking, and a record of its cost which will be of particular interest to their wives.


Thursday, 2 March 2017

Trump Wine: Cabernet Sauvignon and Fortified Chardonnay

So now seems like as good a time as any to contemplate Donald Trump's impact on the world of wine. And what an impact it's been! As he himself gets someone else to put it in The Art Of The Deal, 'I like thinking big. I always have.' And, 'From the very start, size was a top priority.' And, 'It's larger than life.' And, 'Listen to your gut.' If I ever wanted a teetotal megalomaniac casino developer to blend my grapes, than Donald J. Trump would be the man: it's all about quantity and bowels.

Yes, we have a potential situation with Trump's teetotalism (his older brother, Freddy, died an alcoholic which kind of accounts for it) but a mere complete lack of familiarity with something is oviously no bar to success in that chosen sphere. So Trump wines? Or vodka, even? Why ever not?

Well, not the vodka, obviously, as that's gone the way of Trump University, Trump Magazine, Trump Institute, Trump Airlines, Trump Steak, Trump: The Game, Trump natrual spring water, Tour de Trump, Trump on the Ocean, and Trump Network. Trump Vodka ('Awful,' according to one critic) was axed from most markets in 2011, despite being offered in a gold Cubist bottle with a vast T on the front. Nevertheless, the wine persists, with a smart website telling you all about the sprawling estate in Virginia where they make the Trump range, plus a list of its numerous awards, plus a calendar of upscale events like the Mother's Day Brunch and the Bastille Day Vine and Dine.

And there's an online shop, which sets my heart pounding at the thought that I might be able to acquire some of this stuff and thereby get that tiny bit closer to the current leader of the free world. With tragic inevitability, however, you can only get it shipped within the States, and not all of them. Why not Kansas, Delaware, West Virginia or Arizona? What have they done to be deprived of the Trump Winery's unique Fortified Chardonnay, known as Cru? Made by 'Blending Chardonnay juice with grape brandy', this 'Fortified wine is then aged for over a year in American bourbon barrels', but if you're stuck in Wilmington or Bisbee, you have nothing to look forward to.

It's even worse here in the UK, where I am reduced to speculating on whether or not I could persuade my New York friends to blag a couple of bottles and bring them over the next time they're here. I don't know: could I be bothered to drag a couple of Nyetimbers over to them? No, of course not. Which leaves me, for now, supplicating the internet for other people's reviews of Trump's output and trying to get a sense of it that way.

Naturally, one wants these reviews to be as highly-charged and inflammatory as possible, given the kind of person Trump is. But things are more nuanced than that. Even critics who have clearly set out to rubbish Trump Wines sometimes find themselves wrong-footed into grudgingly faint praise: 'This could actually be much more offensive,' says one, about Trump's Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc Meritage 2014; 'Actually...quite subtle', says another reviewer about a white Trump; 'Well-crafted and food-friendly' is a third cautious encomium. The consensus? Trump Wines are quite often quite okay.

But then again: what really sticks in the mind is the way that the Trump Winery website harps on about so much that isn't actually wine. Yes, lots of wineries try to get you to consume things that are only incidental to the booze itself - guided tours, online sales, corporate functions in the fully air-conditioned Sauvignon Suite - but the Trump Winery not only has tastings, online buying, corporate events and commemorative meals, it also offers four different kinds of wedding experience, a wine club, toy dogs, baseball hats, semi-automated donations to St. Jude's Hospital and a frilly, conspicuously set-dressed boutique hotel with a swimming pool, 'A culinary experience unique to Virginia' and rooms at $449 a night. Given that Trump picked the estate up for not a huge amount before handing it over to his son, Eric, it's hard to imagine that it has much resonance for him. Could it be that Trump, wine and Trump Junior are only in it for the short term? And that some larger ambition awaits the estate? 'I never get too attached to one deal or one approach,' the great man has said. Which I think is something we can all learn from, especially if we've spent the morning drinking a bottle of fortified Chardonnay while wearing a themed baseball hat.


Thursday, 23 February 2017

Let me tell you a story...

There are people coming for lunch. I’ve got my wines ready. And my stories.

You may have come across the idea of “brand storytelling”, the notion that a brand can engage with us through tales about its origins, or values, or what makes it distinctive. Because we all prefer something which has a story behind it.

There is even a horrible American adjective, “storied”, which is applied to brands who have had lots said about them, although it just sounds to me as if they have a lot of floors. I can’t wait to hear the many tales from a multi-storied car park.

I’ve got used now to retailers telling stories about their wines. The vineyards which are “next door to” some great name. The winemaker who is “son of” a legendary figure. As if, whether through geography or genealogy, good wine is simply a product of proximity.

My favourite is always the story about the obscure wine from the well-known winery. Obscure not because it’s a lesser wine, oh no – but because this is the fabulous wine which is usually kept back for friends and family. The one which is so good, they usually keep it for themselves. Like the way Martin Scorcese keeps his best films for his home cinema, rather than releasing them to the public.

Then there are legends like that of Casillero del Diablo, the winery which, to dissuade burglars, spread the story that their cellars were guarded by the devil. Well. I’ve read my Danté and my Milton, and I think that the Satanic horde have got bigger things to do than act as night watchmen.

Or there’s the varying tale behind the wine Est! Est!! Est!!! It’s said that a Bishop in the twelfth century, or possibly the eleventh, travelling to meet the Pope, or perhaps to attend a Coronation, sent a prelate, or it may have been a clerk, on ahead of him. This scout was to chalk the word “Est”, Latin for “It is”, on the door, or the wall, of the establishments serving the best wine en route. And the wine he found in Montefiascone was so good that he chalked up “Est! Est!! Est!!!”.

This story may, of course, be apocryphal. It may also be misleading, in that the quality of that wine is not generally regarded as being in the category of the triple-exclamation mark. Jancis Robinson has described it as "usually the dullest white wine with the strangest name in the world." Although I suppose that doesn’t really matter; if you tell your guests the story, and then they disagree with the verdict, you’ve got a fascinating little tasting thing going on, and you can lay the blame for your dull wine on the twelfth-century clerk. Or prelate.

But then there are personal stories. Not those concocted by brands, but those which arise because you’ve chosen the wines yourself. Like the stories I had ready for our guests.

So I was going to start with “wine with bubbles” as they first described it, from the oldest established Champagne house.  The brand’s own story involves a monk, yet again, and the development of glass bottles, yawn. But it was gifted to Mrs K as a leftover from a Famous Designer’s launch party, at a fabulously trendy location, and it’s the Champagne They Chose, which has got to be interesting. I mean, you’re interested in who, and where, and what was chosen, aren’t you?

And then we were to have the last bottle of a 2005 claret, now just at its peak, which I had brought back in December from a supermarket in Paris, encased in bubble wrap and socks. I found a 12-year-old claret for €16, while Mrs K was buying biscuits and chocolate and soup, which just shows why we both love French supermarkets.

No devils or monks or prelates, but stories about designers, and supermarkets, and travelling with wine, and socks… what more could you want?

Then CJ turns up. Usually, if he’s got a story, it’s one you don’t particularly want to hear, like “Do you know, this was the only bottle they had for less than £7?”

But this time, he appears waving a chilled bottle of something sparkling, and he says “Look, this is a combination of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, from South Africa.” And if there’s one thing better than a host with a wine with a story, it’s a guest with one. It means they know what it is they’re bringing; it’s not something they just grabbed off a shelf in a blind panic. Not something you’ll have to look up when they’ve gone, to see whether you should drink it, cook with it or give to a tombola. 

So against all the rules regarding gifts of wine, we drank it, and it got us talking. Bit bland, we felt, and whereas the blend seemed to have removed that biscuity quality of Champagne, it hadn’t added anything interesting enough back in return. But definitely more sophisticated than Prosecco. And it kicked things off very nicely indeed, thanks.

Sometimes, wine is there to fuel the story-telling. And sometimes, wine is the story.


Thursday, 16 February 2017

So Very Cheap: Mme. Parmentier's Fitou

So the adventure of Christmas is well and truly behind us, but it's a Christmas that really does keep on giving, because we found a leftover cracker the other day and decided to pull it, since it was a Thursday, and what did I find inside apart from a hat and a joke about sprouts? An authentically impressive stopper-cum-pourer for my wine bottles, as seen in the picture.

Yes, it's mostly made out of plastic, just like the pocket comb or set of golf tees that normally flops out of an exploded cracker; but there is proper engineering, too. The hinged stopper is kept in place with a metal trunnion pin and is sealed with a neat rubber washer; the spout is not only effortlessly stylish and drip-free, it has a return tube positioned at the top to allow air to flow back into the bottle while the wine flows out; and there is a ribbed rubber collar to ensure a respectable fit in the neck of the bottle. I mean, this is not nothing. It looks like something off a saxophone. It could even have been made in Germany; although the crackers themselves came from our local branch of Robert Dyas, the hardware people, which I suppose tells you something about how we like to have fun.

So now I have a free wine pourer/preserver to add to the free Waiter's Friend which I pinched from a hotel in New York and I am starting to wonder if I can't capitalise further on the prodigality of Western culture and get my entire wine-drinking life onto a no-cost footing. After all, my elder son and his girlfriend use old jamjars to drink water out of when they're at home - partly out of frugality, partly because it's kind of a boho thing to do - so I suppose I could start toping out of jamjars and old gravy boats and recycled Brasso tins, and in fact - come to think of it - I started on that grim process a while back, so why not go the whole hog?

The free drink, though, the actual wine, that's always going to be a problem. No-one ever gives us anything for nothing at Sediment, or hardly ever, so in order to get my drink gratis, it would mean waiting for Christmas and Birthdays and asking very specifically and only for wine, every time those events rolled by. And since they both roll by in the month of December in my benighted case, the rest of the year is going to be almost morbidly dry unless I can find out how to make about sixty bottles last fifty-two weeks.

Actually, there's another problem. Both of my magical accessories, my Waiter's Friend and my superstopper, presuppose that I am the kind of person who a) drinks wine from a bottle with a cork that has to be pulled b) needs or wants to pour that wine in a grown-up fashion before closing it up primly with a hinged stopper. But we know that neither of these is true. I drink stuff from screw-top bottles, and if I splash it all over the table and the back of my own hand while pouring, then, frankly, that's what happens. In other words, even my freebies are more upmarket than me.

Which leaves me with today's half-drunk headache-maker, a wine which expresses my situation perfectly. It's a bottle of Mme. Parmentier's screwtop 2015 Fitou ('enjoyably swiggable' The Guardian said of the 2014) on offer at £5.99, and it's fine, perfectly manageable in its way, but am I really going to get all prissy about it and start treating it like an honoured guest or something that in any way mattered? Am I going to treat it with respect? Am I going to pour it out properly and stopper it? Even with something from a Christmas cracker?


Thursday, 9 February 2017

"Angels and Devils, both the same"? – Casillero del Diablo v Camino del Angel

You could almost think that you’re seeing double.The bottle on the left is the biggest Chilean wine brand in the UK. In fact last year, it was the fourth largest wine brand in the UK overall. The one on the right is not.

There are certain aspects of bottle and label design which become generic, and immediately signal a particular type of wine. So the bottle with sloping shoulders says Burgundy, and Pinot Noir. There’s that Germanic style of lettering which says Chateauneuf du Pape. That narrow, tall, green bottle which says “picnic wine”. Or labels involving puns, which say “Put it back on the shelf, and walk away from the bottle…”

So is there now a “look”, a design, and a deployment of Spanish celestial personnel, which says, in a convenient visual shorthand, cheap Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon?

Casillero del Diablo is The Official Wine Partner of Manchester United. As far as I know, Man U have attracted no Official Champagne Partner, perhaps because they have lately had such little cause for celebration.

And possibly the best thing to have come out of this partnership is the commercial with which it was heralded. If you’ve seen it before, apologies, but it gets better with repeat viewings. Just because Eric Cantona made it as an actor, there was no reason to think that thespian talents might lurk elsewhere in Man U. And this 47-second commercial confirms the fact that, if all the world’s a stage, then some men are indeed merely players – football players, displaying all the acting ability of The Woodentops.

“Guys, we have a problem,” mutters Wayne Rooney, looking more than ever like Mr Potato Head. “The Boss says that a new devil is arriving.” It’s not quite clear why this represents a problem in Wayne’s World, except for the suggestion that any new arrival, diabolic or otherwise, might mark the end of his career.

“And what do they say about him?” asks Ryan Giggs. Perhaps he's preparing to offer advice on injunctions.

“They say…,” responds Rooney, who then pauses, either for dramatic effect or to recall his four remaining words, “He is a legend.” I have seen better acting skills in Nativity plays.

There is of course a “legend” – well, a story – behind the naming of Casillero del Diablo, “The Devil’s Cellar”. Once upon a time, the winery spread the rumour that their cellar was guarded by the devil, in order to scare off thieves. I tried something similar on Mrs K to protect my own wine, but she insisted that the malevolent noises in our cellar were coming from the tumble dryer.

As far as I’m aware, no-one has yet come out with similar twaddle to explain the new Camino del Angel, “The Angel’s Path”, but perhaps we could do it for them. Perhaps after several bottles of this wine, an old winemaker stumbling along the road had a vision of bright coloured lights and a voice which could only be that of a celestial angel. Until the voice said “Careful as you step into the ambulance, sir…”

There is, sadly, a far more prosaic story behind Camino del Angel. It is a new, Sainsbury wine; although only right down in the small print of the back label will you find that it is “distributed” by Sainsbury. Nowhere does it explain that Sainsbury actually own the name

And they don’t seem to be Official Partners of anyone, perhaps because there are no angels in football. (Except, it seems, for James Milner.)

I’m reminded of those brands you find in stores like Lidl or Aldi which sound sort of credible, until you realise that you’ve never seen them anywhere else. And of course, there is a whole angelic hierarchy waiting for competitors to play with should they decide to join in this Miltonic battle of the firmament, by bringing out brands like “Botellas del Seraphim” (© Sediment)

I leave it to others to consider whether the average shopper is so rushed, stupid or visually impaired that they might accidentally pick up one of these wines instead of the other. So let me help. Camino del Angel is the one which begins with an aggressive waft of alcoholic fumes, and provides an initial cherryish palate, before the flavour not so much develops as escapes, leaving you after ten opened minutes with a bland, oily Cabernet Sauvignon with a slap of alcohol.  Which costs just £5.75.

Get it wrong, and you might pay £7.50 for the Casillero del Diablo instead.


Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Unending Nightmare: Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon And Iggy Pop. Or Schubert

So the world of wine-drinking is abuzz, apparently, with talk about the relationship between wine and music - or, more accurately, the relationship between the taste of wine and the environmental influences which affect it; among them, music. I thought we'd had enough of this kind of limelit nonsense, but no: here comes some guy from Oxford, getting The Guardian's otherwise perfectly sage Fiona Beckett all worked up about the beneficial symbiosis between music and drink ('It needs more of this sort of synaesthetic approach'); while over here is a rival from Herriot-Watt University, toiling away at the same thesis (Carmina Burana an intriguing part of the deal). And over here is PK, nudging me to give it a whirl. 'Go on,' he says, insinuatingly, 'you like all that stuff.'

This much I do know: wine affects your appreciation of music. When things are going well, it helps you dial out from your everyday preoccupations and nagging discomforts and allows you to concentrate on what's being played. There's even an argument that in order to submit entirely to some types of classical music or avant-garde jazz, you have to be a bit pissed. Wine as a music modifier, I get. Music as a wine modifier, on the other hand, sounds like the point at which we decide to make our lives so mindful and multifaceted that nothing, not even having a shave or cleaning the windows, cannot but be enhanced by the presence of a soundtrack. Which in turn sounds like the point at which music loses whatever cultural sovereignty it might have once enjoyed and becomes as meaningful as a paint chart, but what do I know?

Very well. It's time to test the hypothesis. The wine on offer? A concrete-floor Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, already open for three days, mainly on account of the fact that day one has to go by while the stuff blows off gases and poison vapours, while day two I forget about its existence, leaving it here on day three, subdued but still rancid. Just taking the cap off fills the room with the smell of a busy motorway, but we are where we are, and this is the wine I intend to modify.

I take a sip of the stuff in what passes for silence in this house. Some caramel moments, followed by a long racking cough of alcohol and carpet underlay. I call up my virtual jukebox - seven thousand individual tracks to chose from, covering the waterfront from Thomas Tallis to Tame Impala, yes, that's how charmingly catholic I am in my tastes - and invite it to randomise me a track. Turns out it's Blues With A Feeling by the fabulous Little Walter. Another sip of the booze. Well, yes, the demonic potency of Little Walter's lament about women and loneliness does sort of chime with the Cabernet Sauvignon, but does it make the experience richer or just noisier? I await the next track.

Which turns out to be Herbie Hancock's Cantaloupe Island, a super-likeable piece of Easy Jazz, and you'd think that this really ought to make my wine reconsider its position, that this would be the great ameliorator, but no. It just makes me wish I was drinking something mellower and more persuasive, something that tastes a bit like Herbie Hancock, in fact.

Getting desperate, I elect to play a snatch of Schubert: the second movement of his Piano Sonata in D Major, D 850, the Gasteiner. Surely we can get somewhere with this dignified, limpid, yet playful bonne bouche from the Late Classical period? Kind of yes, kind of no. A glass of 13.5% rough red wine on an empty stomach has certainly given me the perspective with which to stop, settle myself and contemplate the timeless verities of Franz Schubert and wonder what he might have gone on to write if he hadn't died at the age of thirty-one. But there's no getting away from the fact that the wine is every bit as lousy as it was; the only good news being that I'm getting used to it, now.

Last chance? Dirt, from Iggy Pop and the Stooges. Actually, I think we have something, here: a nihilistic, junk-fuelled, bug-eyed, self-loathing, doom-filled, morbidly hedonistic rock classic from the powerfully toxic early Seventies. I've been dirt, groans Iggy, while The Stooges labour vengefully away in an echoing meat safe, and I don't care. In the context of Dirt, this Chilean embalming fluid positively sings. But, seriously, does this count as an achievement?