Thursday, 20 September 2018

Home Brew

So PK is all of a tizzy because he can get a bottle of red wine for under £4.00. Seriously. It's as if the fine range of sub-£4.00 bottles available from Lidl Aldi or Asda never existed, but there you are: some people don't know what's going on in the world. I mean, I could have told him about these cheap boozes without even bothering to look them up.

Then it occurs to me, PK's blind spots or not: if we are really, really, determined to go low, there is a trick which both of us have missed so far - making our own. To be frank, this first entered my head a few months ago when I was killing time in a hardware store in south-west Wales and ended up staring at a section of DIY wine kits (see pic). I mean, here was a real choice, not just a few makeweights to keep the shelves from looking empty. There was home brew Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay (Chardonnay!), Zinfandel, even some others that I might have missed. Yes, extreme south-west Wales, the ultima thule of the A477, is the kind of place where you have to make your own entertainment, it's a fair old drive from where I was to sexy Haverfordwest, you have to improvise. So why not boil up some Chardonnay now that the evenings are getting longer?

Of course I failed to buy a kit while I was there - and only £20, reduced to clear - but I can still load up online with Shiraz/Merlot kits, Malbec kits, Pinot Grigio kits, Frascati kits, Primitivo kits, Australian Character kits whatever they are, a whole world of kits, most holding out the scarcely-credible promise of a drinkable wine for no more than £1.00 a bottle. Prices are a touch stiffer if buy the gear online rather than in a discount Welsh hardware store, nearer the £30.00 mark for some kits, £70.00 for the authentically hardcore setups that include a 30-litre bucket, steriliser, instructional DVD and all sorts, but the more you make the greater the savings and how can you put a price on that kind of value?

And it's so easy to do! Even if you don't have an instructional DVD, there are YouTubes galore, men, usually men, clanking about in their kitchens and garages and dens, optimising your chances of getting a really satisfactory brew out of whatever materials you have to hand. My favourites? Craig, here, apparently startled to find himself in a roomful of plastic buckets and pipes with a camera pointing at him, but prepared to make a go of it nonetheless; something called Sonoran Living, in which a magenta woman and a plainly angry man show us an authentically disgusting assemblage of things to make wine out of; and this, disarmingly unidirectional vid, in which a bloke in a shirt takes out the contents of a wine kit, puts them on a table and tells us what they are.

The rest of it is just tipping powders and grape juice (or your own grapes, crushed; or indeed any other organic matter) into plastic tubs, cleaning up the inevitable mess and walking away. And then coming back and putting the product in bottles. As my pal with the home-made champagne observed a while ago, wine-making, in comparison with beer-making, 'Is a mug's game. It's so easy.' To put it another way, if my Father-in-Law can, or at least could, make a potable wine, so can I.

Next step? Getting PK involved. After all, I don't want all the bother of washing out bottles or admixing the acidity correction, let alone pouring out the final brew and corking it up. Not only is he fitter and stronger than me, he has a talent for pickiness which is exactly what we need in a tightly controlled situation like this. Actually, now I think about it, is £1.00 a bottle really such a bargain, given the amount of faffing around involved and the almost certain vileness of the final wine? Or can we get it down to 50p? If the latter, then a bottle of anything with Château Sediment label might prove irresistible. That has to be the goal. I'll put it to him, next time I see him.


Thursday, 13 September 2018

The price of Penguin Sands

How low you were thinking of sinking?  On the basis of “how low can you go?”, I can report that this, an actual wine, containing actual alcohol, is being sold for under £4 a bottle, via the lowest shelf at Sainsbury’s.

I have no idea how the finances of this work out. CJ gave up even the £5 pricepoint a few years back. I am not employed by KPMG, PWC or any of those other financial acronyms; the only thing I sometimes have to account for is my whereabouts. But I see that £2.16 of a bottle’s price goes straight to the Chancellor in Excise Duty, along with some 80p in VAT, leaving only about a pound here to cover shipping, bottling, profit – and a few pence worth of wine. So let’s look at it that way. Here is South African wine probably costing less than 35p a bottle. 

Presumably to reassure us, the marketing department seem to be relying on the established tropes of New World wine. First, it’s named after an animal. People love animals and, for a wine brand, an animal need have no discernible connection to wine. Frog, dog, eagle, beagle, black cat, fat cat, moose, goose… penguin?

I believe that when a penguin is underwater, it is a smooth, sleek missile of an animal. It goes in for the krill. 

But that’s not the image in my mind. What's in my mind is a creature swaggering across the land, appendages hanging at its sides like a hooligan ready to fight. And fight they will.

Penguins look as if they’re carrying a bit too much timber around the old waistline, which let’s face it is a concern of many a wine-drinker. And hooligan. And they waddle from side to side, slipping occasionally on ice, and looking sort of…to be honest…drunk.

Is that image of unstable, fighting fatboys appropriate to marketing a wine? Well, at £3.95 a bottle…

Anyway, to develop its name further, they’ve gone for the cliché of an attractive location. Every place on a New World wine label is a bay or a cove, a creek or a river, a point or a leap. Rarely an estuary, basin or canal.

To create your appealing New World wine name, you take an animal from column one, and attach an attractive topographical location from column two. Frog Cove. Moose Creek. Dog Point. Goose Bay. (Spoiler: at least one of those wines actually exists.)

And yes, there is an attractive, sandy beach in South Africa with penguins. From a distance the penguins look just like people, swaggering across the sand, deciding which bit to occupy, and telling their offspring that it’s too soon for an ice cream. Lovely. This image distracts attention from the fact that Penguin Sands is actually bottled in the somewhat more prosaic and brownfield location of Elton, Cheshire.

What else do the marketeers put on their label? Well, something which hints at quality without any potentially disputable detail. Reserve. Premier. Classic. In this case they’ve plumped for Exclusive, for those who feel it’s a positive when something is sold only by Sainsbury’s.

And also the words BOLD AND ROBUST, which on a cheap Shiraz in block capitals reads somewhere between a challenge, a warning and a threat. Hang on to your hat, and buckle your seat belt. The tyres felt a little splashy on the way over here.

Like a cuckolded penguin, it comes out fighting. Behind the threatening colour of an old contusion lurks an aggressive, bitter, septic flavour, which pulls your palate tight and coagulates around your gums. It gets more palatable after half a glass as your mouth surrenders, but although it gets easier to swallow, it continues to kick up through your nose. Notes of Airwick and Copydex. It pulls a little to the right.

Barring abject penury, there is no reason to ever return to Penguin Sands, but it does prove that, even given our punitive Duty and Tax regime, it is still possible to produce a bottle of actual wine for £3.95. Like Dr Johnson’s dog walking on its hind legs, it is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.


Thursday, 6 September 2018


Q: So here we are, back after weeks of travelling around by boat and by car and what have we learned?

A: There are a hell of a lot of vineyards in France

Q: ?

A: Well, yes, that's it. I am overwhelmed by the vineyards. I cannot believe there is so much demand for wine, not even in France. We might as well be washing our shirts in wine or rust-proofing our bicycles with it, so much of this part of the planet appears to be dedicated to its production.

So then the question becomes, how do these vineyards make money, given that there are so many thousands and thousands of them? This has been bugging me for a while. Down in the south-east, Ventoux, region, many of the vineyards are made up of quite small parcels of land, adorably set among rolling hills and steep mountain ranges, interspersed with orchards and olive groves, the vines often playfully untidy, the earth between them sometimes bare and conscientiously tilled, sometimes grassed over, sometimes completely covered in weeds. It's outrageously pictuesque, but does it pay? It looks so inefficient. Especially when contrasted with the places on offer in the other bit of France we quartered, including (if I remember right) Lussac-St Emilion and Puisseguin-St Emilion, not that we actually drank any of these, but anyway.

Unlike the Ventoux plots, these are huge, incredibly orderly, hectare after hectare of vines razored into perfect conformity, no stragglers, no odds and ends, no weeds, just regimented plants of uniform height and character marching into the distance, where, presumably, an equally rectilinear château sits counting the proceeds. It's the difference between Beijing and Bath. All right, Ventoux is a smallish name in French wines, Bordeaux is an industry, but Ventoux growers like to make a profit as much as anyone else. To put it another way: how big does a vineyard have to be, in order to survive?

Evidently a huge amount depends on exactly where you are, how highly-prized your region is, how mature the vines are, what subsidies are available, how easy it is to strip-mine the terrain of its grapes using modern equipment, how easy it is to hire people at key times of the year and so on. And this is before you even get to the terrifying imponderables of weather, disease, infestation, fashionability. I know this. But on the other hand, it doesn't stop me Googling How big does a vineyard need to be?

Turns out this is a question asked at least once every day, sometimes more. There are scores of answers, many of them aimed with full finger-wagging severity at well-heeled semi-retirees who fancy their chances at winemaking while utterly overlooking the downside. A rough count suggests that a decent-sized holding in France or Italy is about 8 hectares, going down to 4 if the vines are good and you can get along on a smallish profit. The average holding in France is 10.5 hectares; the average price of land (excluding the Champagne region, which is so far off the scale it distorts the results) is about 60,000, but you can get something sensible in a non-chic part of the country for 12,000 or less.

Clearly, you can make money out of a single French hectare if it's fair quality and productive; whether you simply harvest the biggest possible tonnage of raw grapes and send them to the local co-operative or press and bottle the product yourself is another issue. Elsewhere, the economies of production are such that whatever the size of the holding, you might very well cut off all the grape clusters except for one, perfect, cluster per vine, devote the whole season to bringing on that bunch of grapes and then turn it into a fabulously high-end wine whose scarcity you have gone miles out of your way to secure.

Our pals with their little piece of heaven in the Ventoux have established a tiny vineyard of about half a hectare and I have no idea which way they plan to go; nor, indeed, have they, given the youthfulness of the vines and the bother of harvesting. Equally, I could plant a vineyard in our back garden, do all the work by hand and possibly make a couple of quid, if it wasn't in London, north-facing and there wasn't a huge tree right in the middle of the plot. Still. It's something to think about, now that autumn's approaching. And I might even get an EU grant!


Thursday, 30 August 2018

Back on tracks – fine wine on a train

There is no doubt that rail travel has let us all down. And among the weary complaints about delays, overcrowding and ticket prices, let us not forget the sad decline in comestibles. The three-course meal has given way to “snacks and hot drinks”; the dining car has given way to the trolley; and the proper bottle of wine has given way to the single-serving miniature.

The inestimable Nick Lezard wrote recently that in order to get through the journey from Edinburgh to London, “I have to stun myself with four of those tiny bottles of barely acceptable Shiraz/Cabernet that get sold on Virgin trains.”

It’s not good enough! Where are the white tablecloths, the silver service, the wine waiters? Where, indeed, the bottle of decent claret? Can nothing be done to restore the former splendour of travel by rail?

Well… fortunately for us all, Berry Bros & Rudd, Wine Merchants to Her Majesty the Queen, are trialling wine sales in London Bridge station. They are offering a range of wines, up to more than £40 a bottle – proper, serious wines of a calibre which might, at one time, have accompanied a meal in a dining car. Her Majesty may remember such things.

There will be those who point out that this London Bridge store also has gift bags available, suggesting that customers might be buying a last-minute bottle to take to a party. Others will observe that the same station outlet sells convenience ready-meals, to be heated up at home, which a bottle of wine might be taken back to accompany.

Quiet, I say. Nothing of the sort. It is clear to me that Berry Bros, drawing upon their splendid pre-Beeching heritage, are simply providing a decent bottle of wine which we can drink on a train, in order to recapture the splendour of rail travel past.

It could be difficult, mind you. The majority of the trains out of London Bridge these days are what I call putt-putt trains. They have electric doors, no tables, and their seats are hard, virtually unupholstered, and don’t even have antimacassars. Surely airline style seats are best suited to an airline style airline?

But really it is irrelevant what the seats are like, because a seat is something you are not likely to have. These are trains typically rammed to the gills. You will therefore be savouring your wine while standing.

Still, mind the doors, and let us depart. Those foolish enough not to carry a corkscrew will have to resort to buying a screwcapped bottle, losing several points in the battle for tradition which this exercise represents. Those foolish enough not to carry a wineglass are clearly not taking this opportunity seriously.

One of the very few advantages of standing up on a train journey is that it is easier to open a bottle of wine. The bottle is easily held between the legs while the cork is pulled. Removing it while seated requires significant elbow room, room which for some reason has not been accommodated by the designers at Bombardier.

The sound of the cork being removed will be likely to turn heads. That is not curiosity you see. It is envy.

The opened bottle will have to reside in the side pocket of a blazer or coat, but it will become progressively less of a burden. One hand is free to hold on to the glass, and one to hold on for dear life. From personal experience, I suggest you pour while the train is stationary.

Beware of the jerks, which can cause a glass of wine to slop. No, not the jerks of the train, but the ones who insist on pushing past, despite the fact that you are clearly trying to savour a serious claret, lured as they are by the tantalising possibility of a working toilet,

Remove your consciousness as far as possible from the surrounding experience. Try to shut out the frequent reminders that you are on a modern train, arising mainly from the many mobile phone calls which begin, “I’m on a train…”.

Ignore the fascinating arguments between travellers and ticket inspectors about the validity or otherwise of someone’s super off-peak special discount Roustabout return And don’t become intrigued by your fellow travellers – sorry, customers – or start wondering just what it is that that mother is planning to give her child which will be something to moan about.

No, bring to mind a bygone age of train travel in comfort and luxury. Sip your fine wine. Try and channel the Orient Express, but without the murder. Or the Channel.

And you should find that you arrive at your destination in a significantly better frame of mind than usual. You will not get cross when it is announced that yours is the next “station stop”, wondering how that might differ from either a “station” or a “stop”. You will not fulminate at the exhortation to “make sure you take all of your belongings with you”, despite the fact that most of your belongings remained at home throughout.

For you will have enjoyed a glimmer of rail travel past, provided by Berry Bros & Rudd.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.


Thursday, 23 August 2018

And yes, CJ is still away…


(Above, the vaulted sky…)

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Wine - no can do

Sooner or later I was going to come across wine in a can. I just didn’t expect to come across it in Waitrose.

I’ve encountered a wine spritzer in a can before, although that was technically an “aromatized wine product cocktail”; but here from Waitrose is a genuine, still wine in a can. And organic wine at that.

Now, it may just be me (it usually is), but isn’t there something a bit odd about an organic wine in a can? A can? Yes the can is recyclable, but if not in a glass bottle, I somehow expect an organic wine to be packaged in something natural, like a goatskin or a sheep’s stomach. Or bamboo – it must be possible to create a bamboo carton, given that so many things are being made out of bamboo these days, like bicycles, and t-shirts, and a complete mess of the view over my back garden wall.

Still, there’s a little graphic on the back of this can which tells me there is neither bisphenol-A nor phthalates present, which is an enormous relief, because I have spent so much of my wine-drinking worrying about them. In the case of bisphenol-A, I was worrying what the hell it was, but a Newsweek feature on it was headlined BPA Is Fine, If You Ignore Most Studies About It, which I fully intend to do. In the case of phthalates, I was just worrying how to spell it.

(BPA may be used to line cans, so they don’t corrode – which of course would not normally trouble a wine drinker who drinks from a glass bottle.)

This is a little, single-serving can, like the ones they use for mixers on trains. So the next time you’re on a train, and they are “passing through the carriages with cold drinks and snacks”, you can ask them why, by the time they reach you, the trolley only has soft drinks and biscuits, when they could have cans of wine. And they can ask you to shut up or get off at the next station. Sorry, “station stop”.

The packaging of this rosé must be aimed at women – that’s according to Mrs K, by the way, so don’t start on me. It’s a lurid, Barbie pink, a shade which doesn’t reflect that of any normal rosé wine. And it's graduated, from lighter at the top to darker at the bottom, which I also hope is not reflected in the wine.

The buzzword for canned wine in the US is “poolside”, where obviously broken glass is a hazard; but I don’t think the idea of drinking wine “poolside” is going to be big in the UK’s municipal baths. Here, despite the fact that most of them stop you taking in your own drink, they are saying that cans are good for festivals, where glass is also banned, and where cans are presumably a better missile.

So I assume, with all of this glass-free malarkey, that the intention is to drink this wine straight from the can. You’re unlikely to be pouring it into a wineglass, if glass itself is banned. So it would be unfair to taste it from a glass. I think I need the entire fist, ring-pull and drink experience.

And it’s odd to open a ring-pull can without hearing an accompanying pffft. It’s as if your mixer has gone flat. In fact, this rosé is mildly petillant – also mildly fruity, in that nondescript, rosé manner, and mildly coloured, if the little sluicing around the lid is anything to go by. In fact it's mildly everything, in particular annoying.

Because you can’t see it, obviously, and after the initial opening you can’t smell it. You’re holding it by two fingers, because it’s too small for a fist, and while manufacturers are right to say that wine in cans chills faster than in glass, that also means that it warms up faster too. And it’s so small, you can’t really judge when it’s coming to an end. Swigging it from its little, rapidly-warming can, deprived of so much of the wine-drinking experience, I found myself wondering – why would I do this?

Look, I’ll drink decent wine out of anything. If someone filled it with Lafite, I’d drink wine out of a chamber pot.

But let’s not take all of the sight, the smell, the sensations and the style out of drinking wine, in the name of convenience. Or in the next instalments of lowering the quality of life, we can expect caviar in pocket-friendly crisp bags, smoked salmon in wallet-sized pouches, and bag-in-boxes of vintage port.

So handy for festivals.


Thursday, 9 August 2018

Thursday, 2 August 2018

A little of what you fancy

Wow, look at the size of that wineglass! It’s as big as an entire bottle of trendy rosé! 

Well no, actually. This is rosé wine in a teeny tiny 25cl bottle.

There are two shelves full of these little pocket-sized buggers, 20cl and 25cl, on sale for around £3 at my local M&S. And they are in the supermarkets, too, at about £2. You can hunt in vain for a decent selection of half bottles, let alone some of those clever 50cl, 2/3rd size bottles I wrote about recently. But I walk into an M&S, and there are shelves full of Lilliputian bottles, an astonishing range encompassing wines of all colours and kinds.

I presume they are targeting people who just want “a glass of wine”. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never noticed them before. Or people who only have the ready cash for a third of a bottle? No, they wouldn’t be shopping in M&S.

Or are they for cooking? Recipes casually call for a “wineglass” of wine, without ever specifying the actual size. Is that a white wineglass – or a red? A Paris goblet – or a Riedel bowl? Whatever; a mini-bottle is precise, and better than opening an entire good bottle to fuel a coq au vin, even if that’s the perfect excuse to finish the said good bottle.

Perhaps these dollshouse drinks could be handy on a picnic? I ask this warily because, between Mrs K and I, the difference between a picnic and a packed lunch has been the recent subject of an interesting discussion (or, depending on which of us you are, "a pointless argument”). My notions of a picnic require, for example, an aesthetic venue (you can’t have a picnic on a bench); shared foods (you can’t have individual sandwiches on a picnic – that’s a packed lunch); and plates (whereas you can eat a packed lunch out of your individual Tupperware boxes). And a picnic certainly involves wine, which a packed lunch certainly does not. Cute little screwcap bottles, each to their own picnicker’s colour and taste? Seems like a good idea.

There are other advantages to the mini-bottles. If you’re my friend Anthony, they’re ideal for trousering into a certain Premiership stadium, so that his wife Sue can enjoy a decent glass of wine rather than the filth they serve in their bars.

You could put them out for dinner guests who want to monitor their consumption precisely, or for that one person who wants just a glass of white when everyone else is sharing a bottle of red.

And they’re wonderful if you want to play at aeroplanes, since these are in-flight size. To enjoy this game at home, simply divide one person’s supper into two tiny meals, transfer them into foil cartons, then sit by your partner on a sofa eating them from trays on your laps. For added authenticity, every so often, lurch violently. And you will find that your tiny bottle of wine inexplicably morphs into a luxury item, a reflection of status, an indication that you are a glamorous, international jet-setter.

By restaurant and even pub standards, £3 for a glass of wine is pretty good value. I went for this one because I fancied a rosé on a hot evening; because it was 25cl rather than 20cl (that extra sip makes all the difference); and I was intrigued by a bottle with a figure like a Barbie doll. I am also amused by the idea of a miniature of rosé, in an era of yacht rosés in giant bottles the size of fire extinguishers.

Sadly the wine itself was a disappointment. I thought it was tight, sharp, and lacking in fruit flavours, but with an edge of bitterness like a soluble aspirin, the sort of taste you get in your mouth when someone has just sprayed a fly. M&S is kind enough to do the maths, and tell us on the shelf that this £3 miniature represents £9 for a full 75cl bottle – at which they do indeed sell it. I wouldn’t pay it, but there it is.

But, hang on a sec – because that is actually extraordinary. Here is a third of a bottle – at a third of the price. 

We’re used to half-bottles being well over half-price, which retailers blame on fixed costs like bottling and transport. But you can pick up these miniature bottles of wine at the same price pro rata as a full bottle. Having accepted the half-bottle excuses over the years, I don't understand how this works, but it seems to be the case.

So you can enjoy all of that stuff above – the fun, the convenience, the variety, the portability, the smaller initial outlay – without it costing a penny more.

Do you know what? It’s a little tempting…


Thursday, 26 July 2018

CJ is away

…ploughing the wine-dark sea…

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Wine and Football – match abandoned

Wine and football don’t mix. End of. That is one of the clearest things we have learnt during the football-obsessed month from which we are now emerging.

When wine sees a bandwagon, it jumps upon it, even if it bears no real relation to wine itself. So this year, wine eschewed its usual Summer marketing favourites. (“Garden wines! Because you need to drink a different wine as soon as you step outside!” “Barbeque wines! They smother the taste of simultaneously burnt and undercooked food!” “Rosé wines! Because…it’s Summer!”)

Instead, brands and merchants attempted to hitch wine to the World Cup. “Here are the perfect wines to celebrate the dream!” declared a typical Saraceni Wines.   “Are you ready to live to the fullest the World Cup?” Oh yes, to the very fullest.

Majestic Wine offered money back on a case if England beat Sweden, because “Finding great wine should be easier than winning at penalties”, an analogy as strained as the tealeaves in Stalag Luft III.

Oddbins at one stage Tweeted, “MM Cavas are delicious! Which surely indicates a Spanish victory.” Or not.

The Wine Society ran a World Cup of Grapes, and then Tanners Wines simply repeated the idea, a tenuous link with the football in the first place, but one which raised the tantalising prospect of simply rerunning a World Cup to get a different result.

And here’s Astley Vineyard, in Worcestershire: “Wine. Football. Why not!?” Well, before we have a chance to count the ways, they admit “ We're not the biggest football fans, but as the World Cup is on it would be a shame to miss an opportunity!” At least they’re honest about it.

“The idea is simple: taste wines from the top three countries of this year's World Cup - no matter who they are!” As simple ideas go, that one must be up there with the chocolate teapot.

Wine and football simply don’t go together. A few Premier League clubs do have official wine partners; for Arsenal it’s Chilean wine Santa Rita; Man City have done a regional deal with Wolf Blass; and Man Utd still have their contract with Casillero del Diablo, despite endangering the relationship with the world’s worst promotional video. All the world may be a stage, but some people are better off remaining players, especially Wayne Rooney.

(Endearingly, Liverpool don’t have a branded wine deal, but they do offer their own “top quality wines” – through an Official Off-Licence, like.)

But the association really doesn’t work. Because at the end of ninety minutes/when the whistle goes/insert further clumsy football result analogy here, wine is simply not a good partner for football.

Apart from anything else, wine is a drink to consider. It is surely for contemplation, not raw celebration. It is cerebral, not physical.

True, there were some aspects of the football which were as cerebral, nay incomprehensible, as some tasting notes; I’m thinking of Glenn Hoddle’s strategic analysis. “What about these young Merlots, Glenn, how do you rate them?” “Ooh, lovely. At the end of the day, they’ve sneaked through the channel, and they’ve picked our pocket. Beautiful…”

But with football, you need a drink you can gulp. You need to drink in quantity, whether it’s to fuel the fervour, to calm the nerves, or to provide refreshment, especially in this summer’s heat. The idea that wine is a good way to “quench your thirst” while watching sport – thanks, Rude Wines – is somewhere between foolish and dangerous.

And bearing this summer’s most popular football celebration in mind, wine is simply not as suitable as beer for throwing in the air. (When Sediment pointed this out to Rude Wines, we received the prim reply, “In this case we'd recommend having white wine in your glass, less stains to deal with.”)

Wine throwing, as we know, is not a communal affair; chucking wine at someone is a very direct, angry, personal gesture more akin to throwing a punch. And the quantity of wine in glasses would simply not be sufficient to create that glittering, sun-refracted firework display of beer which greeted each England goal.

Of course, it may be that champagne and football do go together. We just never got a chance to find out…


Thursday, 12 July 2018

These Vocalisations I Make On First Sampling A Beverage*

- Mm, yeah, yeah, not bad

- No, I like a bit of a head on it

- ...I'm getting loose boxes...spent matches...guacamole...

- You could use it for cooking

- Woah! That's got a nose on it!

- Ah, death and Château D'Yquem. Yes, I know it is Château D'Yquem

- Of course, when we leave the EU this'll cost a fortune

- Is it meant to be this colour?

- ....Mmm...mmm...nnn...

- Woof!

- Shit, sorry, I'll get a cloth

- Oh yeah, yeah, oh God, yeah, that's the one

- Of course, this was Winston Churchill's/Adlai Stevenson's/Sonny Bono's favourite drink

- Oh, for fuck's sake

- This is the last one, then I'm out of here

- Can I see the label again?

- So like I said, at one point the whole of Bob Dylan's backing band was in the CIA

- Wowsers!

- Did you make this yourself?

- I'm going to say a Sainsbury's Rioja. A 2009 Pauillac? Well, you had me there

- How do you spell terroir, exactly?

- ...Eewww...

- The last time I had this was in 1982/Cousin Clive's funeral/the London Olympics

- I dunno, I think I prefer it at room temperature

- Is it meant to be slightly pétillant?

- Seriously, this is it, or I'm going to miss my train

- I dunno, I think I prefer it a bit colder

- And it's been in your family for four generations?

- No, don't worry, I'll get it out with a spoon

- I did have this once in Italy, but it didn't taste like this

- Ah, that's it right there

- Minerality, my arse

- Well if Jancis Robinson likes it, that's good enough for me

-'s pee...

- God, I hate Argentian Malbec. Actually, this is quite nice

- This is a very small glass

- Bang on!

- I think this bus may have already left the depot

- 14.5%? Why didn't you tell me?

- I went to the place where they make this, once. It's absolutely tiny. Or is it quite large? No, wait a minute, it's really huge

- I'm glad to see you've moved on to a screw top

- I dunno, what do you think?

- I can see why they drink so much of it

- Aaarrrp...

- Yeah, Spain. Bit of a mystery

- Lovely colour

- ...Stone know, that thing that comes in a kind of round leathern receptacle...

- Who was that bloke who used to advertise this on the telly?

- Hang on, I've only just started

- I'm only going to drink beer and spirits after this

- Ah, the old Red Infuriator

- Shit, this shirt was clean this morning

- Good stuff. The next one's definitely on me

- I met this guy who told me you could make it out of lettuce leaves and sodium bicarbonate

- There's only one thing you can say about this

- Nope. I'm just getting cat's pee

- You've got to hand it to the French. They can really knock this stuff out

- It's Greek?


*Contains adult language/themes

Thursday, 5 July 2018

White rabbit

I’m so sick of white wine. I’ve had three weeks of hot weather, three weeks of fish, and shellfish, and salads, across London and Cornwall. Which has meant three weeks of white wine. Oh, I’ve put away so much of the damn stuff. And I’m thoroughly fed up with it.

Of course we’re going to choose white wine during a heatwave. Everyone keeps telling us it’s “crisp”, and “zesty”, and “fresh”, descriptions which would sell anything during a spell of hot weather. It’s served cold, the condensation calling alluringly from the glass. And we’re eating all those lightweight dishes, which a proper red wine would smother like a duvet.

But honestly? It’s a glass of nayce whayte wayne.  It’s what you have at those canapé and conversation events where talking is more important than drinking. Where you’re never sure of the quality of the wine, and so you pick up a glass of white, because bad white is never as bad as bad red.

White wine is for lunch. As Keith Waterhouse wrote in his magnificent The Theory and Practice of Lunch – a theory and practice sadly forsworn by today’s teetotal lunchers – “the wine that travels best with the lunchtime banter and gossip is not served at room temperature.” (Although of course when that was published two decades ago, few restaurants had their own rooms chilled.)

It’s been the mainstay of lunch at a gentleman’s club, the steely Chablis with the smoked salmon and the Dover Sole. But when the weather’s like this, you have the same kind of supper in the evening at home. You’re not cooking stews, or roasts, or anything else which requires having the oven on for an hour. No, it’s fish and salads and cold collations, which just scream out for white wine.

So you have to accept you’ll have another cold white wine – but then it doesn’t stay cold. Those coolers, whether plastic or terracotta, never really work, and the absence of a home ice bucket means I am faced with constant trips back to the fridge. Even so, the wine simply warms up in the glass, becoming rapidly tepid. Great; I’ve eschewed something which on a hot summer’s day has the look and temperature of blood, for something which has the similar characteristics of urine.

And let’s not talk about the flavour. It’s “steely”, it’s “flinty”, it’s “chalky”. Have you noticed how many of the adjectives used to describe white wine apply to things you would never put in your mouth?

OK yes, I am modern enough to drink chilled reds, and have now purposefully bought a Brouilly for the cellar and a Chinon for the fridge. But I am not going to ask for a chilled red in a restaurant in Cornwall, where I would risk looking like some utter bassoon, coming down here with his trendy Shoreditch ways.

(And don’t get me started on rosé, with its “here comes the sun, here comes the rosé” seasonal marketing, as if the mere presence of sunshine demands that you drink it. Quick boys, the clouds are parting, wheel out the rosé. Well thank you waiter but no, there are people passing my table and I don’t wish to look like a gullible dilbert.)

After three weeks, I’ve had enough. Enough crispy freshness and fresh crispness and perky zesty steely minerality and what have you – and never the deep, resonant weight of a red which sends you off genuinely satisfied.

Eventually, this weather has to break. Spit, fire, spout, rain and all that. We’ll all go back indoors and there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the alfresco set and the barbeque boys. But over here will be a happy man, retreating to his dining room with a proper supper and a glass of good claret. At last.


Thursday, 28 June 2018


So there we are on the boat, in the blazing sunshine, and my resolve to drink only boat-related beverages goes overboard when I discover that some previous boat guests have left a small stash of wines - undrunk by them, nor by my wife who doesn't drink wine anyway - in a locker under one of the seats in the saloon. Feigning indifference while in reality trembling with curiosity, I dig the things out from among a mass of time-expired UHT milk cartons and emergency water containers and find:

A bottle of Morgon
A bottle of white Côtes de Gascogne which is a complete novelty to me, I mean I suppose I must have drunk a Côtes de Gascogne at least once in my life, but when?
A white Burgundy from Tesco

My wife claims in passing that someone also left a Crozes-Hermitage knocking around but then revises this theory, deciding that perhaps this person brought the bottle with him and then drank the contents himself. Certainly, there's no sign of it - but still, I have three bottles of drink which in value alone clearly beats the horrible Porcupine Ridge Syrah I've brought down with me (because after all you never know when you might need some undrinkable red), plus a hideous Waitrose own label cheap Australian red which promises all manner of easy drinking now and deep existential regret the day after. My course is clear.

Results? The Morgon is pretty nice, but I'm not sure au fond how much I like Morgon, or indeed any kind of Beaujolais. Still. The Côtes de Gascogne, on the other hand, is delicious, really eye-wideningly so. I can't remember now who made it or what went into it, other than that I didn't recognise a single grape listed on the back, but it was delicious then and delicious in hindsight. I mean, delicious. Tesco Burgundy? Yeah, it was fine, too. But not delicious like the Côtes de Gascogne was delicious.

At the end of all this, I feel pretty lucky to have found a microcellar of neglected wines, rolling around in the bottom of an elderly sailboat, and knocked it off before it got any more corrupted; and we're sitting on a mooring just outside Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight feeling borderline smug (see pic of outrageous sunset) instead of merely exhausted and terrified, when it becomes apparent that what we think of as the Good Life is too small even to be lived, on account of the superyacht Amaryllis, which we suddenly discern at anchor, not far away.

Amaryllis is more than seven times the length of our boat and six stories high. Apparently it cost around £100 million to build, is the thick end of £700,000 a week to charter, takes fourteen passengers and nineteen crew, has a floodlit swimming pool, a gym and a steamroom and boasts 4,000 horsepower of engine to get it around. The interior is Art Nouveau-themed. There are leopardskin bedspreads in the staterooms. We cannot imagine what it is doing outside Yarmouth, which is delightful but not bigtime. Is it the Isle of Wight Festival, celebrating its Fiftieth Anniversary just a couple of miles away and boasting Liam Gallagher and Depeche Mode as top acts? Is Liam using it as a floating hotel, a rock star ultraglamping? Doesn't seem to be much action on board, so perhaps not, maybe just the crew.

But: what are they stashing away on Amaryllis to drink? Five'll get you ten that whoever is or isn't on board, they'll be demanding those Methuselahs of easy-drinking rosé that don't taste of anything, but which dull the pain of life on a huge faux Nouveau boat. Litres and litres of bland pink - whereas I, on the other hand, have had a brief and deeply satisfying excursion into French goodness for way less than £700,000 a week, merely by parasitising someone else's generosity. Does this tell us anything about the operation of the moral universe? I suspect it does; but I also suspect I don't come out of it terribly well.


Thursday, 21 June 2018

But I would drink 500 mls

Now here’s a good idea, I thought to myself. (Obviously, because how else can one think?) A 500ml bottle of wine, two-thirds of a full-size bottle. It was being promoted by Mud House Sauvignon Blanc, at the London Wine Fair, and I thought, how considerate, how laudable, how sensible. At a stroke, they are giving me a simple way of reducing my evening’s consumption by a third. Perfect.

As the producers have said: “Alcohol consumption is going down with drinkers wanting to maintain control over their alcohol intake. These occasions often happen midweek when busy and stressed consumers are looking to unwind.” Busy, stressed, that’s me alright. I too want to unwind like a clockwork toy; and yes, often midweek, which is hardly surprising given that midweek constitutes 5/7ths of the week.

And I certainly do like to maintain control over my alcohol intake. This generally means positioning the bottle on my side of the table, within easy reach. Which ensures that no-one else can interfere with behaviour I can only (but precisely) describe as self-serving.

This new format will also save me from pumping out unfinished 750ml bottles like a demented cyclist – and then finding when I return to them that someone (no names, no pack drill) has either knocked the seal, or taken some wine without pumping it out again. (I return to the bottle, and my heart sinks, as the seal fails to emit its breathy little kiss of welcome.)

The explanatory tag above was on the bottles I saw at the London Wine Fair. “2 large glasses”, its first icon explains. I would excise the word “large”, to describe a 250ml glass of wine, and use a term such as “proper”. We are not in the world of restaurants, where as little as 125ml of wine constitutes a “glass”, as opposed to a more accurate definition such as a “taste”. No, we are at home, where generosity is unbounded.

And where a half bottle seems so miserly in the evening. At lunchtime, a half bottle is ideal; indeed a pichet is often adequate. With an afternoon of work ahead, a pichet or a half bottle oils the engine without, as it were, flooding the carburettor. Long-term readers may remember that I once bought a pichet, but soon realised that what works at a restaurant lunch does not necessarily work for supper at home.

For we are clearly talking here about an evening meal. “Dinner tonight”, the tag’s second icon proclaims. Indeed, the producers advise the trade that “Ideally the wine should be positioned outside the wine aisle, by the ready meals, to target the meal for tonight mission.”

The what, now? “The meal for tonight mission” sounds like a place which provides supper for the needy.

Ah no, mission is a verb, not a noun. And of course, buying a meal for tonight does mirror a combat mission. Getting successfully in and out of the zone (car park), achieving a targeted objective (meal for tonight) and incurring minimal collateral damage (to one’s wallet and schedule).

So part of the idea seems to be that “busy and stressed” punters will grab a 500ml bottle along with the other elements of their evening meal. Prices are just £5 to £5.50. Let us banish any thoughts that in the ready meal aisle, because there are no other bottles around for comparison, they might be so “busy and stressed” that they grab at it thinking they are actually picking up a reasonably-priced full-size bottle…

But then the third icon stopped me. “Sharing”, it said. I read the tag more closely. “Perfect for those occasions when you want to share just two large glasses of wine and no more.” Share. So if I understand it correctly, the suggestion is that this 500ml bottle will serve two of you?

Oh dear, no. I’m sorry, but, no. Perhaps this suggestion is aimed at people who don’t actually like wine?

I’m with Winston Churchill here. Winston considered the imperial pint of champagne,​ which is roughly 500ml but sounds a lot more impressive, to be the 'ideal size' for an individual at home. He famously said: “Clemmie [his wife] thinks that a full bottle is too much for me. But I know that half a bottle is insufficient to tease my brains. An imperial pint is an ideal size for a man like me.”

And, indeed, me.


Thursday, 14 June 2018


So I'm brooding on beers and spirits (so many beers, a wall of the damn things in the supermarket, like the reredos of a mediaeval church) when PK demands to know what I think of these people - whose business it is, apparently, to supply really rich boatowners, or at least people on superyachts, with wine. Why me? I say. Because you go sailing, he says. But the boat I sail in, I say, is fairly small and lumpy and mostly sails around the South Coast, not the South of France or the Caribbean and I don't even like sailing that much. I'll send you the link, he says.

Well he sends me the link and for a long time I avoid opening it but at last boredom and the faintest atom of curiosity overcome me so I go and have a poke around and I have to admit that there is a horrible fascination in discovering that very very rich people live lives so far removed from mine that we might as well belong to two different species. Also that, according to a piece about Onshore Cellars in Decanter, what these monstrous superrich humans like to drink a lot of on the Côte d'Azur are Dom Perignon Rosé and Cristal plus plenty of Petrus, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and a load of costly rosés delivered in bottles as big as fighter jet drop tanks, such as I saw a couple of weeks back at the London Wine Fair. One person in eight on this planet doesn't have enough to eat, but one person in approximately four million can expect something described as a 'Seven-star service' in which the most tiresomely whimsical appetites are routinely pandered to by a team of frenzied perfectionists. There you go.

But the horrible fascination only lasts five minutes because after that, reason returns and reminds me that

a) Superyachts aren't boats in the first place. I've never been on a really big superyacht but I have been on a couple of vast Sunseekers at boat shows and even though they're only half the size of the monster boats, it is clear that in the broadest sense these structures aren't boats, they're floating boutique hotels whose scenery occasionally changes around them; rather than things which pitch roll and yaw horribly even at anchor, and

b) The more northerly your latitude, the less appealing wine becomes, anyway. Yes, in the Med or the Caribbean, you might well feel like a cool glass of pink champagne at any time of the day or night, but in the English Channel and northwards, it's just not going to happen. Spirits are what we crave, whisky, gin, brandy, calvados. I wish I found rum, given its Naval associations and its sovereign powers as a cure-all and mood-settler - especially for those of us reduced to terror and misery by the open sea - something other than revolting, but the others do just fine. And beer, of course. Wine + sailing results in a category error which no amount of finessing can correct.

On the other hand -

Beerwatch: five days ago, in keeping with the new ethos, I had a bottle of Tiger beer for supper, and it was delicious. This Singaporean beverage, now apparently yet another part of the Heineken empire, comes in at 4.8%, with a pleasing deep amber appearance and just the right suggestion of airport toilets in the nose. Served good and cold, this went down perfectly with some trout and the following morning I felt fresh as a daisy, not something you can always depend on with trout. A couple of days after that, I had an Adnams bitter, not quite as emollient as the Tiger but perfectly good in its way. The night before last, I had a Welsh beer (yes) called Double Dragon, in a pub, in Wales, and it was rather terrifically firm and fruity and had just a hint of putrefaction, so what with one thing and another, I had a pint and a half of the stuff and felt strangely confirmed in my choice. In other words, wine? On boats? Not when I've got this Wonderland at my feet!