Thursday, 8 November 2018

The Pleasure – or not – of Côtes du Rhône

The concept of ‘guilty pleasures’ is one I fail to grasp. Surely it is countered through the pursuit of a simple philosophy: if something makes you feel bad when you do it, then don’t. But be that as it may; it seems that Côtes du Rhône wines have been running a promotion entitled Guilty Pleasures.

I have only felt guilty about wine myself when I have paid too much for it. Perhaps not surprisingly, that seems not to be the gist of the Côtes du Rhone campaign.

“Côtes du Rhône wines are ideal to share with friends,” they say, differentiating them from precisely zero other wines. 

However, they go on to claim that these are, uniquely, wines to “enjoy everyday during those ‘Guilty Pleasure’ occasions such as indulging in your favourite TV series, eating a juicy burger or treating yourself to a pampering session.”

Do you feel guilty watching your favourite TV series? There must be some vegetarians who would feel acutely guilty about eating a juicy burger, and I would advise them not to do so; but that doesn’t apply to me. And nor does a pampering session, to which I am not aware that I have ever “treated myself”, although I have felt quite indulged during a visit to a tailor. But watching my favourite TV series? That’s something I enjoy. That’s why I do it.

But here, in one of their campaign ads, are the guilty parties, as it were. Perhaps their favourite TV series is Police Camera Alcohol, in which drunks fight, vomit and fall off pavements in economically deprived towns – and the reason these two feel guilty is that they’re getting themselves into a similar state, but bingeing on Côtes du Rhône rather than vodka, with the evening terminating in the comfort of their plush-looking sofa rather than the confines of a police van.

So she dances into their living room with a remote control in one hand and a bottle of Côtes du Rhône in the other. Calm down, dear, there’ll be a spillage! He, on the other hand, has taken the adventurous step of loosening his tie, a hideous mauve example which bodes ill for his taste. It all looks such fun; in fact, the ad must have done its job, because I feel I should copy them, perhaps in my own living room, where unlike the one in the ad, a security lanyard is not required.

With the name implanted into my psyche by the promotion, I scan the supermarket shelf like an average punter for a bottle simply and boldly labelled Côtes du Rhône – and there it is!


(No, I did not enter their competition, by posting this picture of my bottle with the hashtag #myrhoneguiltypleasure. Because by the end of the month a whopping 21 other individuals had done so on Twitter, and I worried that 22 might break the internet. Also, the winner is picked at random, which I was always taught was not a competition, but a lottery.)

This particular Côtes du Rhône cost £5.50. The back of the label suggests that it is “perfect with mid-week suppers such as spaghetti Bolognese or sausages and mash”, suspiciously avoiding any connection whatsoever with the flavours of French cuisine.

And equally, it seems to avoid any connection with the flavours of French wine. A slightly oily bouquet, a vague taste of postage-stamp glue and fruit gums, but essentially a bland and flabby wine, empty of flavour and character. Which might put any newcomer off Côtes du Rhône for good.

And ay, there’s the rub – because there is no single Côtes du Rhône wine. Even when that name is prominent on the label, it’s not a uniform and consistent product like Gordon’s gin. It’s one of the biggest appellations in the world, with over 5,000 growers. I have to wonder at the value in promoting Côtes du Rhône as a brand, when its wines vary so much, from the most magnificent, expensive examples down to, well, the one which the promotion got me to drink.

Which at £5.50 didn’t make me feel guilty. But certainly wasn’t much pleasure.


Thursday, 1 November 2018

Leaked Clues From The IWSC Jumbo Christmas Crossword

So the big surprise this week, here at Sediment at least, was the partial leak of the IWSC's Wine and Spirits Christmas Crossword puzzle. Normally the IWSC goes to formidable lengths to keep its brain-teasers (high point of many a oenophile's year) under wraps until the week of Christmas itself, but this year someone's hacked the compilers and got out not quite half the clues and none of the actual grid. The solutions are also out in the wild, but heavily encrypted; they'll take a while to unscramble.

Anyway. Too excited and intemperate to wait, I've decided to put up the stuff that we have got, so anyone who wants to can get stuck in. I've managed a couple already (I'm pretty sure 15 Down is Chianti), but others are slightly harder going. Solutions should be through in a fortnight.

4. Familiar appelation unites us from the Sixties (6)
7. Sell a Gallic sweetheart? Take your pick! (8)
8. Here I live in fear (7)
13. Sweet, mistaken, earnest us (9)
14. Familiar aroma in odd pet case? (4,3)
19. See 27 Down
22. Ventoux mechanism turns white (10)
26. Writer gives up for old Antipodean (8)
30. Missouri anticipates mixture of dregs and an abrupt left to create a flower (7)
34. Flavour like Kew? (9)
39. Fizzy, favoured six-legger contains harm? (9)
40. What we're left with, 'e claimed to argue (8)

2. Prophet rises and gets working for a piece of California (6)
6. Adhesive dyestuff? Buff's commonplace (6,7)
11. Messy slob's tipple (4)
13. He waits for battle, story-teller loses article but invests a quarter (9)
15. Some kind of CIA suggestion - Machiavelli might recognise it (7)
18. Magical object loses player, gains most of actress - it's the water of life (8)
23. Look in the residue, Rosemary, for traces of a river (5)
31. Common Era's not suited? It's a mess near Dijon (5,2,5)
35. German opera contains mixed-up falsehoods? Hock the lot! (8)
36. Typical Chardonnay to evoke a serving hatch (7)
37. Keatsian Hippocrene (3,4,3,8)


Thursday, 25 October 2018

Claret of a different class

What are we doing here?? It’s a tasting in London of the 2016 Bordeaux vintage, organised by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, a group of the top chateaux located in the finest appellations in the Gironde. It’s a room full of the sort of people who make, buy and trade cases of serious, top-flight claret. And us.

They say that beggars can’t be choosers, but I choose straight away, and make a beeline for the Chateau Figeac, a Saint-Emilion which is supposedly a favourite of Bryan Ferry. Perhaps that’s because of the label design, on which he and I (as in so many things, of course) are as one. But in one of the very few ways in which we differ, he at least might be wealthy enough to drink it.

Because Figeac 2016 has been selling en primeur just shy of £1900 a case. Which means that with all of the duty, VAT, bells and whistles, a bottle off a shelf is always going to be the wrong side of £200.

And, well, it’s pretty good. It’s nowhere near as good as it’s going to be, and you wouldn’t really get £200 of delight out of a bottle today, but it was a pleasure to experience. Like hearing, for the first time, someone peck out the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth on a piano, and then imagining for yourself what it might eventually become when it’s orchestrated.

But surrounding us were the kind of people regularly involved with claret at £1900 and more a case. Not involved with drinking it, necessarily, but with advising and trading in it. The sort of people who would be buying wine for Bryan Ferry. And looking around, it appeared that the claret market must be a last bastion of the traditional wine merchants of the upper class.

We’re talking old school posh, with the probable emphasis on their old schools. Despite the fact we’re in town, chaps are wearing the sort of gorse and heather tweed jackets that should only be put on when you get West of the Chiswick Roundabout.

The older variety exhibit a sort of confident shabbiness, whether in their tweeds or slightly rumpled suits. The younger ones look like SpAds. There are ladies in pearls.

Now this is very different from some of the modern importers’ tastings, where there are wines from all over the world, and prices all over the option. Where there are trendy-looking young people who probably run restaurants in Hackney, or wine bars in Peckham. Where there might even be people who actually drink the wines.

Instead, here are the sort of people one traditionally trusted with one’s money, which is what all of this is presumably about. Because people buy 2016 claret at £200 a bottle to drink (or, perhaps, to sell on) in a decade’s time. And the only people trusted to advise them what it’s going to be like in ten years’ time are the people who drank a similar claret ten years previously.

So from the days when claret was an entirely upper class pursuit, the whole thing must have perpetuated itself among the posh, vintage after vintage, generation after generation, like some kind of peerage. Man hands on claret trade to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf. Perhaps it’s in the blood – which, when you think about it, is another term for inheritance.

And here comes young Rupert, who can afford to learn the trade without earning very much for now. And presumably in ten years’ time, he’ll be running the show, and saying affably “Have you bought 2026 yet? Because I remember how taut the ‘16s were at this stage, and believe me these will loosen up in the way that the ‘16s did, and you’ll wish you had a case or three in the cellar.

“Do you know, Figeac was only £1900 a case back then?”

The wines themselves go along with this, projecting that air of superiority with which the posh are so comfortable. Whereas there we stand like a couple of inferiors, sampling wines which to us are really pretty much the same. I mean, sorry, but they’re all from Bordeaux, they’re all the same age, they’re all just opened. It’s like sniffing babies; they all sort of smell of milk, except for the one that’s clearly done a poo.

So we retreat into winespeak. This one is a bit grippy around the edges, but how’s that going to mellow as the day grows long? That one takes to the track well, but is it going to fade over the final third?

You see, I wouldn’t know. Perhaps I’m just not posh enough.


Thursday, 18 October 2018


So this week, having nothing better to do, I've seen the light: rosé is the way. It's taken a while and PK hasn't helped by pointing out that an awful lot of high street rosé is flavourless overpriced crap, but I've given up fighting, I have got with the programme and I have joined the rest of the world in its secret vice. 

And here's why:

It goes with anything. Short of beef stew or an ultra-rare venison steak, you, or at least I, can drink rosé - thanks to its broadly anonymous lack of any particularly nice taste, see above - with any food that anyone is likely to encounter, including, but not limited to, sushi, bacon and eggs, anything involving a chicken or other winged creature, rhubarb fool, all pastas, Christmas cake, soup, lamb, Goan cuisine, every kind of cheese, flapjacks, salad, soda bread, ham hock, lemon curd, Greek mezze. It is beyond versatile. It is very zen.

In that respect, it scarcely counts as wine. Say goodbye to all that senseless anguish as you try to navigate your way between regions, varietals, makers, vintages. The job is done for you all in one with rosé wines - satisfyingly and with such fabulous ease that rosé becomes a unique, mildly acoholic beverage in its own right, a taxonomy of one, free from any burden of decision-making.

It anagrammatizes into Sore, Ores and Eros.

Great colour. All the way from the earliest mantling of dawn in the eastern sky to nail-bar fuschia: who doesn't like to look at something pink from time to time? It's playful, it's slightly disinfectant, it has an echo of the nursery about it, it's not the colour of spilled blood or indeed blood plasma.

Which also gestures towards a new kind of inclusivity. In these fatally divisive times what we need is a drink which embraces both sides of the debate - red and white - and unites them in an ameliorist's paradise, a world which recognises that there is good and bad in both extremes - but with a little goodwill, a desire for compromise, we can all sit on the same part of the fence in some comfort, unless we're eating raw steak, but don't you think we should really stop eating raw steak, not least on account of the harm it does our bodies? For this very reason, rosés stand apart in that they contain a moral component.

You can find it in song titles and lines of poetry.

Whole lotta rosé - AC/DC
There is a rosé in Spanish Harlem - Ben E. King
Days of wine and rosés - Ernest Dowson, They Are Not Long
Rosé - Don Partridge
Rosés are shining in Picardy - Frederick Weatherly
O rosé thou art sick - William Blake, The Sick Rosé

I could go on.

Well flash people drink it on big boats out of huge bottles. Rosé is not only a wine for the undecided and the non-partisan, it is also a wine for those of us with a marginal taste for bling. It doesn't have to sit in a blushing Methuselah on the upper deck of a ninety-footer, but does almost as well stuck artlessly on the kitchen table next to the chutney. It hints at lifestyle - something I've never actually enjoyed - just by being there, especially if it's that really toney kind of borderline palest pink which denotes big dollars and jaded sensibilities. Ladies love that kind of thing, reeks of class.

It's currently on offer at Waitrose for £4.99. I've gone and bought an extra bottle, just to be on the safe side. Firm & fruity, Spanish probably, probably something, anyway. Who knows? Does the maker know? Is he even interested? The label has elements of puce with a soft metalised finish. It has a pink screwcap so I can tell at a glance what it is when it's on its side in the rack. What else is there? I am going to attempt one of my paellas to go with it. Usually this ends up as a kind of lumpy fish porridge, but I like it. Perfect accompaniment? Rosé. It'll taste terrible, but at least it's one less thing to worry about.


Thursday, 11 October 2018

Wine? Or chocolate?

Chocolate? Or wine? And why the choice?

Well, the Marks & Spencer “Dine in” offer of a meal for two comprises a package deal of two starters, a shared main – and either wine or chocolates. (You cannot, it seems, go for an evening of just chocolate and wine, the ever-popular Bridget Jones option.)

So in its current Italian format, that’s a choice for your meal between a bottle of Italian wine, or some Italian dessert chocolates.

Now, what kind of choice is that? I presume it is meant to provide compensation for customers who don’t drink wine. But it’s rather like a hotel package offering a room, a meal, and the use of a car – or, for those who don't drive, flip-flops.

Because, let’s face it: a meal without chocolate is a disappointment. But a meal without wine is a disaster.

It’s intriguing to wonder at the kind of dinner M&S envisage here. Is this a romantic dinner à deux for the culinarily incompetent, just a notch above having a moped rider turn up with two carrier bags? If so, a bottle of wine might provide some much-needed social lubrication. And how many potential lovers are happy to be seen stuffing their face with chocolates?

Or is this a convenient meal for two established partners? Chances are that at least one of you drinks – and in my experience, a wine-drinker is going to be much more annoyed by an absence of wine than a non-drinker is going to be annoyed by an absence of chocolate.

As far as expectation at a meal is concerned, there can surely be no argument. As CJ so ably expressed it, in our entertaining, modestly priced and completely original e-book, Wining & Dining, “The wine must be there, and in quantity, to make a dinner worth attending, or giving, or ruining, or turning up late for, or hosting.

“The wine must be there,” he insists, “And it mustn't be so foul that it makes your armpits prickle.”

Whereas chocolate? It’s been a while since someone tried to persuade us that chocolates were a key part of a dinner, and that someone was After Eight. In fabulously dated TV ads, dinner was portrayed as a formal, black-tie affair, with candles and silver, and military men smoking cigars. People cast each other meaningful glances, although unlike many dinner parties today, the meaning of which they were full was not “Do you think we can leave yet?”

Black tie? Well, things may be different round at the Rees-Moggs’, but CJ classes it an upmarket dinner if all of the men wear socks.

And what was all this “after eight” business, anyway? At Casa K, we’re usually still on the pre-dinner nibbles just after eight, wondering if all of the guests are actually going to show up.

No, I’m sorry, whether it’s a romantic dinner for two or a full-blown dinner party, chocolates are not so much after eight these days as afterthought.

Okay, there are similarities between wine and chocolate. Neither is particularly good for your health. You can choose between damaging your liver, or your teeth. Wine seems to contain fewer calories, although at least you can drive after consuming a gutload of chocolate.

(And don’t you like the way M&S describe them as “dessert” chocolates, as if you should treat them as an actual course?)

Or is it that M&S perceive both as a “luxury” item? Unfortunately chocolate, like wine, is only as luxurious as you pay for. It is hard to conceive that a substance with the same name can be either the creation of an artisan chocolatier, or a Freddo bar. But then, it’s hard to believe that Chateau Lafite is the same product as Penguin Sands.

Look, if you don’t drink, take the wine anyway. Even if you don’t consume it, you can always take it as a gift to the next dinner you attend. Which perhaps explains the bottles of dodgy M&S wine now residing in my cellar…


Thursday, 4 October 2018

Home Brew II

So I put the idea of making our own booze to PK and, to my slight astonishment, he says, Well, maybe we should. I say, Really? He says Yes, and goes on to reveal that his Father used to make rhubarb wine which he left to mature in the pantry of the old family home, where it used to explode from time to time. We'd be sitting there, he says, and there'd be a crash and we'd know another bottle had gone. Really? I say, again, and he nods. Things you learn.

So then I explain about the kits and the YouTubes I've been half-arsedly scrutinisiing and the muck you apparently have to put in your mixing tub and where do you keep it all for the love of God? And he nods and says, Well it sounds quite interesting. Maybe we should do one each and compare them.

This is not what I was anticipating, not at all. Where is the regulation issue PK, with all his la-di-da beverages and do's and don'ts and wide-ranging shibboleths? My bluff appears to have been called, inadvertently or otherwise (how was I to know about his Dad and the rhubarb wine?) and now I have to make it seem that what I wanted all along, was to make my own wine. Actually, what I really wanted was for PK to volunteer to do everything, leaving me with the relatively easy job of sage onlooker, but life isn't like that. So I nod back at him, committing myself at the very least to a fresh trawl through the internet for tips and materials.

Back at the screen, the first thing is to weed out the American contributors, with their remorseless positivity and their facial hair. That done, I find myself back with this guy - the one who previously contented himself with merely showing the world the contents of a Wilko wine box, but who is now, affably enough, taking us through the process of making a complete Cabernet Sauvignon Wilko wine. He's from the Wirral, I'm guessing, somewhere Merseyside anyway, and his approach to film-making has some of the deconstructed grammar of the French New Wave, the same non-hierarchical approach to narrative and the nature of reality, but it hangs together. And he's wearing shorts.

In fact it's a pleasure to watch him mix the brew, apparently with the least possible forethought (the memory card in his camera runs out a third of the way through; he hasn't bought himself a plastic funnel) and fretting over what his wife will say about the marks on the dining table. At some point, it's true, I start to lose focus and gaze instead on YouTube's suggestions for what I might want to watch next (a brief history of electric guitar distortion; Seinfeld outtakes) and then, a bit later on, I skip forward to see how he's managing, but it all looks straightforward enough. He's got some fancy gear - a big old demijohn and an airlock to go in the bung - and he's clearly done it before, showing no nervousness around the various packets and sachets that come out of the Wilko box like deep space rations, and sure enough I start to feel that, given time and practice, I could manage the same level of dextrous ease. The whole thing, fermentation included, seems to take about a week and a half. I could find that time. And no actual grapes involved.

Only snag? At the end of the process, he siphons the proto-wine off into some washed-out old screwtop wine bottles, serves it up (not shown in video) and pronounces it good. Now, I reckon if we're dealing with a ten-day-old wine, then screwtops should be perfectly adequate. PK, on the other hand, is thinking of giving the wine he hasn't actually made yet a chance to lose some of its chemical textures and arrogant youthfulness by laying it down: which means, he says, corks. Which in turn means, if I were to match him all the way, that I would have to buy some wines which came in bottles that had corks in them. I mean, six fancier than usual wines with actual corks, plus the demijohn, plus the airlock, plus the kit itself, it's starting to stack up. Given that the whole, or nearly the whole, point is to get wine for next to nothing, this is the wrong direction of travel. Still. I'm seeing him again in a couple of weeks; a fresh item on the agenda.


Thursday, 27 September 2018

Last of the Summer Wine

Before you ask, this week’s title has nothing to do with the fact that CJ and I are ageing codgers at whom people sometimes laugh. No, it’s all down to the perceptible turn in the weather. It’s time for the wardrobe to switch from cotton to wool, from short-sleeves to long. It’s time to turn from my cold breakfast of bircher muesli – oats painstakingly prepared each evening – to my hot breakfast of porridge – oats painstakingly prepared each morning. And it’s time for the last of the summer wine.

Does our taste really change with the seasons? Or is this simply another of my ridiculous self-imposed edicts, which mean that wine-drinking ends up somewhere between ritual and ridicule?

Because we do have a summer wine at Casa K. We discovered El Perro Verde in a restaurant in Barcelona, on a blisteringly hot day. It’s a Verdejo, from Rueda, fresh and crisp and zingy, all of that stuff people say wines should be in the summer, with a bit of grassiness and a touch of apple. We went back, and it was just as good a second time. And when I found it in Barcelona’s “most prestigious” wine merchant (because where else would I go?)  I brought two bottles home in my case, each enrobed for transport in a carrier bag and two of my dirty socks.

And it travelled! It was just as clean and refreshing and zingy at home. And it extended our summer experience by a couple of London suppers.

But Verdejo really is a summer wine, best drunk young and fresh. It tends to get a bit bland as it gets older, and loses its zing. And it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that zing (doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah).

This year, as we weren’t going to Barcelona, I dug around online, and found a Spanish wine specialist who would economically ship us a case. A bit more expensive than on even a prestigious Barcelona shelf, but less expensive than in a Barcelona restaurant. Twelve bottles duly arrived, packed in an enormously complicated folding cardboard case contraption. It took half an hour unfolding and dismantling before it could be recycled; but that was still preferable to each bottle being transported inside a carrier bag and two of somebody else’s dirty socks.

And that case has been our summer’s worth. Portioned out carefully for meals in the garden, for those light, spritely suppers that only work in the sun, for special occasions and largely just for the two of us, one of whom will inevitably say “Ah, Barcelona…”

With the weather turning, there are three bottles left. I can only hope that either some warm days come before the wine turns disappointing; or that the wine will stay zingy until some warm days come. Neither of which now feel terribly likely.

Is this just nonsense about the weather? What about drinking in climate-controlled restaurants, where the weather outside is irrelevant? Ah, but you’re now wearing autumn clothes. You haven’t had a dose of sunshine on your skin. You woke up to porridge, not muesli.

And to be honest, I’m now looking forward again to what David Williams, writing in The Observer,   describes as “the bear hugs of the heavy reds”. Oh, and the porridge. On a trip to Cornwall, I discovered the impossibly delicious luxury of porridge with clotted cream. My arteries are palpitating with anticipation…


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…