Thursday, 25 April 2019


So our English pals with the to-die-for place in the South of France are telling us how they were not that long ago invited round for dinner by some nearby French pals and how, having arrived, they found some other French people there and it was all very pleasant except for the fact that one other French couple was stuck en route somewhere so the meal would be delayed: by two hours, in fact, as the stuck people (where were they coming from? Dortmund?) had the greatest conceivable difficulty in unsticking themselves; and when they finally arrived offered no apology, merely a complaint.

Still. You might think that those present would have passed the time by having a few drinks, worrying about Brexit, generally unbuttoning themselves, to the extent that two hours in they'd be quite well lit up. But no. No wines or other alcoholic beverages were served until the laggards had actually shown. Two hours of sitting around, making small talk, neither eating nor drinking. The event was so formal, so rulebound, that nothing could happen, like a wedding or a coronation, until all the participants were present.

How can this be? The French love to drink. They've long been a world leader in liver cirrhosis. The long lunch with two bottles of wine and a digestif. The Calvados followed by a morning spent operating dangerous farming machinery or mining a quarry. The taxi driver haloed by beer fumes. How can this be?

Well, the pals say, that's what the uptight French middle classes do these days. They don't hit the sauce like they used to. And now that this point is out in the open, it occurs to me that, yes, I have been to one or two unnervingly chaste French encounters, where the booze has flowed so sluggishly it might as well not have been there. Dinner with some French semi-family semi-friends a couple of years back saw five adults seated around a single bottle of neither-here-nor-there Côtes du Rhône for an eternity, while many claims were made concerning the superiority of French society, listlessly rebutted by us Brits, all the while staring at this awful, feeble, yet irreplaceable, bottle. We had a strong sense that the bottle, in its uniqueness and finality, was not meant to be drunk at all but was only there to tell us something about the protocols of French conviviality, a symbol of pure culture more than anything else. Long evening.

Or, a very different setting - the residence of the French Ambassador in London (big gaff near Kensington Palace) - where I'd been asked to swell the numbers for an acquaintance getting an award from the French Government. Yes, we had Monsieur l'Ambassadeur himself and, yes, we had a couple of ludicrous footmen with sashes who stood to attention in order to demonstrate that truly we were witnessing the French State, but: even though it was a celebration, a time of congratulations, we had nothing to drink. For an hour or so we milled around, listened to the speeches (one honouring, one accepting), stared out of the windows, got more and more parched and disconsolate, until, just when we were thinking of packing up and going home, some butlers appeared, holding tiny trays bearing tiny glasses of what turned out to be completely horrible red wine. These butlers moved among us with painful slowness, distributing the drink before disappearing for a Gallic age, then re-emerging, lethargically dishing out some more of the warm, filthy grog, disappearing again, and on and on, until everyone had been given their minute token of France's bounty and we could finally slope off to get a proper drink.

As usual, when thinking about these things, l end up wondering, is it me or is it them? Have the French always been this chary or is it merely that I've become such a slavering toper over the years that what once seemed perfectly proper now looks niggardly? Is it just a Brit thing? Are we the odd ones out, yet again? Very possibly.

Except that I also remember how some German family pals once had us round for dinner, beginning the evening with a bottle of sparkling demi-sec and a huge cream cake, all of which we had to consume before getting stuck into the actual dinner of sausages and potatoes and whatnot. In their defence, they did look a bit apprehensive while we all sat there around the coffee table, eating the pudding course at six in the evening, but they made us do it. On the other hand, the next time we ate there they gave us a full-on barbecue with lashings of delicious Reinheitsgebot beer, so things make a kind of sense, sometimes. But who's got it right? Lashings of booze Brits or massively uptight French? What does hospitality mean? A sense of correctness or a sense of abundance? And I haven't even got onto the Americans.


Tuesday, 16 April 2019

A matter of size

A study of wine glass capacity through the ages has only just come to my attention. Published by the BMJ, perhaps it has only just come to my attention because the original study came out at a Christmas time, when I had possibly consumed too many large glasses to notice it.

“Wine glass capacity in England,” they report, “has increased, from a mean 66 ml in 1700 to 449 ml in 2017.”

(The term “mean” is being used here in a mathematical sense, although it would indeed seem appropriate to refer to a glass holding 66ml of wine as mean. In fact, downright miserly.)

My father-in-law deploys a battalion of similarly tiny crystal glasses on his dining table, which are beautiful but completely impractical. I can accept a tiny glass for grappa, or a similar digestif – but not, surely, for wine? Now I wonder if he has been preserving a tradition, since glasses seem from this study to have been less than 140ml when his Pall Mall club was founded.

The BMJ study is not particularly interested in why glass sizes have increased. The study acknowledges “changes in several factors including price, technology, societal wealth, and wine appreciation.” You could sum it up by saying that glass sizes increased because they could.

No, being the BMJ, the study is really interested in the killjoy notion that, if you take people back to smaller glasses, they will consume less wine. 

“Studying wine glasses’ capacity over time,” say the authors, “is an initial step in considering, firstly, whether any changes in their size may have contributed to the steep rise in wine drinking seen in the past few decades and, secondly, whether reducing wine glass size may help cut consumption.”

And the prospect of this relies upon something they grandly call “the unit bias heuristic” – the idea that you feel you have had “a slice of cake” or “a glass of wine”, no matter how large (or small) the slice or the glass may be.

Well. I can only think of those trendy little coloured macaroons – sorry, macarons – from places like Ladurée. You know the ones; one less O in the spelling, one more 0 on the price.

I do not feel I have “had a macaroon” when I have had one of those, because a macaroon is supposed to be something the size of a saucer, not a coat button. And when I have a small glass of wine, I think yes, that tasting sample was fine, can I have the drink now please?

The tiny glasses on my father-in-law’s table do not decrease consumption, because his son and I are determined to make the most of the lovely clarets that are brought to it. We are not embarrassed to refill our glasses after each sip, or to keep the bottle at our end of the table in order to do so, transgressing proper dinner table behaviour as we must. But we do lament the way it hinders our proper appreciation of the wine.

“Larger wine glasses,” the BMJ admit, “can also increase the pleasure from drinking wine.” I think we know that wine served in larger glasses is more enjoyable, because the wine can aerate, the bouquet has more of a chance to circulate, and your nose can get into the glass to appreciate it.

The BMJ worry that this “may in turn increase the desire to drink more.” But if you make wine a less enjoyable experience, will consumption actually fall? Not if you judge by the mass-market popularity of terrible wine.

In fact, the opposite can surely be argued. The better the wine in our glass, on the whole, the less we drink of it. The more intense and powerful the experience, the more you savour and prolong it. So there is surely an argument that, by enhancing the wine experience with a larger glass, the less you will actually consume.

Do you pour more wine into a larger glass? Just because it takes more, doesn’t mean that you fill it. Not just to allow air to circulate, and enhance the aeration and bouquet; but because there’s something vulgar about an overfilled glass. And the greater the size of the glass, the greater the potential for vulgarity.

My magnificent Riedel sommelier glass  is the size of a small coconut, and would actually contain an entire bottle. Needless to say, it has never done so.

And as my brother-in-law and I panic at the thought of the tiny fractions of a bottle we are consuming, and constantly refill our little glasses, there’s even an argument that we might be drinking more than if we were slowly swirling and savouring the wine in larger glasses.

At the end of the day, this is why most serious wine drinkers talk in terms of bottles, rather than glasses. Not because we are necessarily in the habit of drinking wine by the bottle ourselves – but because we now acknowledge its widely accepted 75cl measure. So we talk of drinking half a bottle with supper, or sharing a half-bottle with lunch, or ordering a bottle between friends. 

There is no such measure as “a glass”; it is at best a euphemism. And at worst, mean.


Thursday, 11 April 2019

Plain Man's Guide

So a pal of mine has very kindly given me a copy of Raymond Postgate's The Plain Man's Guide To Wine,1959 edition, which he found in a second-hand bookshop; generosity of the highest kind.

First of all it needs to be said that this slim (135 pages) volume, despite being sixty years behind the times, tells you just about everything you need to know about just about everything. Open it at random and the wisdom leaps out at you:

- The first rule for a wine drinker is: 'Drink what you like'
- Pour the wine, steadily and not splashily, into the type of glass named
- Ugly as only French provincial houses can be
- Most of them...require highly-seasoned food like gorgonzola, or spaghetti rich with garlic and olive oil
- Some bottles have the names of grapes on them

I could go on. Clearly, the main themes are that you should drink what you like, how you like, pouring steadily and avoiding gorgonzola; which actually means that you should drink what Raymond Postgate thinks you should drink; which means mostly French, plus some German: 'There is nothing more lovely than a superb burgundy or a first-rate hock'. In fact his admiration for Hocks, Moselles and Alsace wines - which he lumps together under the old appellation of Rhenish - is such that, 'Not to be mincing about it, they are the finest white wines in the world.' Italy, on the other hand? 'The wines of Italy are plentiful, but on the whole undistinguished.' The Americas and Australia are tipped as ones to watch. There is a lot about port, madeira and marsala. 'You probably should prefer sweet wines to begin with,' he assures the reader, 'because you probably need them. In nearly all countries sugar was rationed during the War - in Great Britain it still was rationed in 1953 - and many people still have a small but definite need for it.' If you want a tanker of port with your cottage pie, then Fay ce que vouldras is the maxim.

Which is all suitably bonkers and divertingly true to its period. Also informative: his account of Bordeaux reds is the first one I've been able to understand after eight years of failure. But then it occurs to me - doesn't the name, Raymond Postgate, sound vaguely familiar?

Well yes; which is the second thing to note. Far from being your average wine dullard, Raymond Postgate had a fairly startling early career as a left-wing, not-especially-wine-drinking firebrand who was arrested during World War I for objecting to military service on political grounds. His family disowned him for that, and for marrying the daughter of George Lansbury. He then wrote a book called Bolshevik Theory and helped to found the British Communist Party; Lenin sent him a signed photograph. After that, he edited the Encyclopædia Britannica, split from Moscow, joined the Home Guard during World War II and eventually founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Food, once the war had ended, with the aim of raising everyday eating standards in post-war Britain.

This was, in fact, a socialist's riposte to lousy British cooking - an appeal to the common man, rather than to the handful of gourmets left over after the fighting stopped. Postgate wanted good food and drink for everyone. Hence The Plain Man's Guide To Wine and indeed, The Good Food Guide, which he started in 1951 and which is still going. Better yet, his generally antsy approach won him no friends in the business, not least because of his insistence on using an army of volunteers rather than paid professionals. He was anti-establishment even when talking about pommes boulangère. And in 1965, Babycham sued him, unsuccessfully, for slagging off their product. That's what I would call a life lived to the full.

All of which means that this copy of The Plain Man's Guide To Wine is not a piece of antiquated booze hackwork, but a social document, a manifesto for a more just, more righteous, to-morrow, penned by someone who helped shape the politics of the last century. When Postgate talks about the beneficial qualities of Tokay ('A proved restorer of virility, and at the same time an increaser of fertility') he's not just saying it to sound impressive. He's saying it because it matters. When he says 'Don't smoke over wines,' he's got the working man's interests at heart in all sorts of ways. When you consider that a previous owner of my copy of The Plain Man's Guide To Wine turned down the corners of no fewer than six pages as aides-memoire, that's a testimony to the book's cogency right there. And when you add to all this the fact that his son, Oliver Postgate, was one of the creators of Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss, well: there are no words.


Thursday, 4 April 2019

A gentleman winemaker's wine

What is this stylish looking wine? Its visual combination of contemporary style with classic elements seems like a reflection of my very own character. Surely the wine of a gentleman winemaker. And its name…Piqué…why, it sounds like a Gallicisation of its creator – moi.

Yes, having made my own wine over the last eight weeks, it has now been bottled and, as you can see, named and labelled. I have a degree of smug self-satisfaction at having thought of its name, and designed a label, with the added suspicion that CJ will not have bothered with either.

(I was of course worried about emulating those hideous phonetic names drawn from initials, like PeeKay, or SeeJay, which reek of rundown shopfronts and County Court Judgments. But I feel that Piqué offers a more… sophisticated approach.)

Love my house as I do, not even I could call it a chateau. But I can genuinely state that Piqué was indeed mis en bouteille àu propriété. Which also looks better on the label than mis en bouteille dans la salle de bain.

Like so many aspects of this winemaking saga, bottling proved more challenging than I had anticipated. For one thing, when you siphon wine out of a demijohn, the hose swings around like an angry snake, spewing red wine all over the option. You’re trying to simultaneously tilt the demijohn, keep the hose inside a bottle, and pump the, er, pump. I clearly lack that key requirement of a wine bottler – three hands.

Then there was the issue of the sediment. This sat in a corner of the demijohn, an ominous slurry. It proved impossible to reach the last half-bottle or so of wine in the demijohn without sucking the sediment up, so eventually I improvised a filter, using a funnel and a tea strainer. It’s a little trick I would like to say I picked up from the Baron de Rothschild, except that I didn’t.

Somehow, at the end of it all, I had five bottles of wine. Not six, but five. CJ reports exactly the same; we each started with 4.5 litres, but ended up with only five bottles, 3.75 litres. Could all of that have gone in sediment, or even evaporation? The part des anges? I can’t believe that angels would sink to the level of sharing this stuff, even those bored with occupying the head of a pin,

Labelling added a whole new and challenging aspect to the bottling process: in particular, removing the existing labels from a week’s worth – sorry, a fortnight’s worth, hem hem – of emptied bottles. Like stamps and matchbox labels, it was once simple to soak off wine labels in warm water. That was before self-adhesion entered the process. A word from the wise (well, from me); put hot water inside the bottle, which can melt the adhesive on the back of the label.

The label still may not come off in one piece; if it does, you are likely to have a label which remains furiously self-adhesive. And if it does not adhere to self, it may well adhere to anything on which you place it. Another word from the wise (after the event): if there is one thing from which it is harder to remove a self-adhesive label than a bottle, that thing is a table.

But finally, the job was done. Piqué has been bottled in dark shouldered claret bottles, dark sloping Burgundy bottles and pale green screwcap bottles more commonly associated with white wines. This could either be a maneouvre in order to test the market, or a reflection of the variety of wines I was drinking when I needed some empty bottles.

And now it is “maturing”. The bottles are still inside a bucket, in case of explosion, although I have hopefully got beyond that stage. The final chapter will be a comparative tasting against CJ’s efforts. All I can now anticipate is that mine will possibly look better.


Thursday, 28 March 2019

Terminal Two

So Majestic have started to crumble, apparently. There you go. Six years ago (Six whole years! Why did nobody tell me life would be like this?) I droned on about the collapse of the high street wine store and the ever-so-slightly faded retail experience that was Majestic (who were nonetheless picking up on the sales of their departed rivals). Slightly less than four years ago, PK droned on about a) Majestic's then-new single-bottle sales policy and b) yes, what a drag it was to visit one of their shops. Now Majestic are trying something else again, a spot of reverse engineering, tying themselves more visibly into their own latterday online grog floggers Naked Wines, while getting rid of some of their draggy retail premises. Is this is good thing?

Well, I hate to admit it, but I'm so unlikely to buy anything off Naked Wines it's down to a near-zero probability. I get the message - sign up for a monthly £20 payment into the kitty and enjoy a discount on your otherwise not especially keenly priced booze; and have the stuff brought to your house - but it doesn't really do it for me, especially given the fact that every time I order any wine online in any sort of quantity, there's a fuck-up with the delivery. So I can't see my old relationship with Majestic being leveraged into a new one with Naked, however relevant Naked may be to my wine needs.

More dismally, I have no relationship with Majestic for them to leverage. I can't remember the last time I went there (2013? It's possible). All I can summon up is nostalgia, the last thing anyone wants - an inner trip to the 1980's, when the absolute summit of gratification was to have a Golf Gti which you, or indeed, I, filled up with candidly unfamiliar wines from this wild new Majestic Wine retail opportunity and brought home to cries of admiration and surprise. I mean, it was a ton of fun, I had some great times and it was thirty years ago.

Meanwhile, it's hard to shake off the feeling that sooner or later Majestic are, like their defunct rivals, going to dwindle into non-existence. A tart assessment of matters by The Drinks Business sees them struggling to offload the retail sites they need to offload, given all the other expired wine retail sites clogging the place up after Threshers, Victoria, Wine Rack, Unwins and, more recently, Oddbins, gave up the ghost. It also points out that Naked, now the motive force behind the whole operation, leans a lot on international sales for its profits. Which is fine, but doesn't make it sound especially like a business with its full focus on the dumb British punter. Another, even tarter assessment, sees only cynical marketing and poor value as the main winners, whoever's buying. The upshot? Right now, we're given a reasonably comprehensive everyday service by the supermarkets, along with a handful of chi-chi wine specialists of the sort that PK patronises, plus the internet as all-purpose hilarity bazaar for anything else. Which I suppose means that Naked might survive for a while; breezeblock-and-tin-roof Majestic, less so.

As it happens, the branch of Victoria Wine at the end of our road, which closed ten? more? years ago - is finally being turned into something else, emblematically. In the second half of last year you could still peer through the abandoned, grimed, windows and make out old price tickets and point of sale boosters littering the floor. Now the scaffolding's gone up and the site's on the verge of becoming something mixed use, or just living spaces, or with another retail dead zone on the ground floor. It doesn't have one of those ads telling you to reserve a duplex now, posted on the cladding, the site's too small. All we can do is guess. Given the attrition rate of retailers and restaurateurs in our neck of the woods, you hope they don't build anything commercial into the property, it's too depressing. Also the parking's terrible just there. 

But if the same thing happens to the hundreds of ex-wine shops around the country, who am I to argue? At least it's something rather than nothing; and we need housing; and we can move on from the decline of the dinosaurs; and not even Majestic lasts for ever; and it's 2019, what do you expect? Or was it a Threshers?


Thursday, 21 March 2019

PK is away…

… indulging himself.

Thursday, 14 March 2019


So it's another heady session of wine-tasting for PK and me, taking in some mixed Italians in the Institution of Civil Engineers' overweeningly terrific Westminster HQ (see pic), followed by a Barolocentric tasting at the Royal Horticultural Halls, just round the corner. It's all good. Who doesn't like Italian wines? And rain isn't even forecast.

Thing is, of course, I'm still fingers and thumbs at these wine-tastings, even after years of trudging along to them: big, small, classy, middle-of-the-road, you name it, I still freeze very slightly as I approach the table with the sample bottles and a tensely smiling winemaker/distributor on the other side. My mind blanks. I have no wisdom, no learning, nothing to say. I might as well be the spit bucket for all I contribute to the encounter.

No such problems for PK, who actually quickens his step the nearer he gets, beadily gesturing to the absolutely most expensive wine in the selection. Not only that, but he has the chat. At one table among the mixed Italians he lobs in a smartalec remark about burying a cow's horn on account of the biodynamics, which is returned quick as a squash ball by the lady behind the counter; an agreeable moment of banter ensues. I stand to one side, perfectly mute, inwardly interrogating myself about cow horns and what in the name of God can they mean? PK preens himself very slightly. I just move along, two paces behind, avoiding eye contact.

Part of the problem is that I have never been much good at learning anything, so the endless minutiae of wines were always going to be beyond my reach. Another part of the problem is that I am now so old I forget whatever it was I did once know, apart from certain brightly-lit fragments which won't go away even if I try and make them. Given which, any new information - anything from the last ten years, roughly - is never going to gain much purchase inside my head; to the extent that I now discount the idea of trying to retain anything, using other people to remember for me or simply acknowledging that I will have to get along without whatever it is I am supposed to recall. The concept of super Tuscans, for instance. Take one of the pencils, PK keeps muttering to me. Write it down. You'll never remember. I just give him a placating look, calmly acknowledging that what we think we know is not what we actually know; at the same time, forgetting which wine is which and completely losing sight of the best Barolo in the room. After three mouthfuls I can't tell the difference anyway, so why bother to make notes? That said, I do take a picture of a notice for a seminar which promises to rediscover Valtellina's Heroic Alpine Viticulture - such a great line it should be made into a film. So I haven't given up completely.

But then the next day, I am confronted with an unsettling metaphor for my own gradual disengagement from the business of making a mental effort. It's time to bottle my DIY wine: for which purpose I have saved six bottles + six corks and am good to go, when I start the final siphoning from the demijohn (where the stuff's been for the last six weeks). But what do I find? I have enough wine for precisely five bottles, not the six I thought I was making. All right, some of it I had to leave behind in the first demijohn transfer as it was mostly sludge. And in the second transfer there were a couple of puddles I couldn't quite reach with the siphon. But a whole bottle? Did I not pour enough tap water in at the start? Did I not read the instructions thoroughly? I thought I'd measured it out just right, but no. A whole bottle missing.

Obviously, this has implications for the booze itself; I won't know how bad for a couple of weeks at least. More than that, the missing sixth bottle is a kind of objective correlative for my dwindling faculties. Instead of a sixth of my home-made crap wine it might as well be a sixth of my brain that's disappeared through neglect or inattention. It's not just a question of semi-intended negligence. I am losing touch. My head is filling with emptiness. The vacant section of the wine rack where the sixth bottle should be is the growing vacuity in my mind. There you go: I'm becoming senile. Sooner or later I'll leave the house without any trousers; or I'll have to be told who Huw Edwards is; or I won't even notice that I'm not finishing my


Thursday, 7 March 2019

Gentleman winemaker Pt II

Last summer Jay McInerney wrote in Town & Country about a dinner hosted at Chateau Lafite by Baron Rothschild. “Clad in a slightly rumpled double-breasted navy linen blazer,” he wrote, “[Baron Rothschild] exudes a warmth that helps counteract his imposing height, good looks, and pedigree.”

Of all the descriptions applied there to Baron Rothschild, the only one which applies to me is “slightly rumpled”. Or, sometimes, “clad”.

Yet my progress towards becoming, like the Baron, a gentleman winemaker, moves on. For weeks of fermentation, my involvement in this home winemaking carry-on has been limited to mere observation. And this I could pursue in a gentlemanly manner, sometimes clad, and sometimes even in slightly rumpled attire.

There was little to report during this time, apart from a warm, yeasty smell, an occasional gurgle and, as the demijohn was sitting safely inside one of them, a critical shortage of buckets when it came to washing the car. I mean, how many buckets does the average householder possess?

But the time then arrived for the next stage of actual activity, in which the fermented wine has to be siphoned off its lees in demijohn 1 and into demijohn 2. This involves a sort of Professor Branestawm set-up, all of which has to be “sterlised” (sic). And to keep a certain other member of the household happy, I had to do it in the bath, in case there was any kind of spillage. Or, indeed, any remaining notion of sophistication.

Thanks to my Easy Start siphon, the “wine” (as perhaps I can now call it) surged through the tube. The key thing here was to banish from my mind the recurrent images of someone on the TV having a colonic.

The wine then had to be agitated at least three times a day for three to four days. Well, I tried telling it that Liverpool might win the Premier League, a notion which agitates me a lot, but it seemed that wasn’t sufficient. No, I had to hoist the demijohn up and physically shake it, the instructions say “for 3 or 4 minutes”. Do you realise how long that actually is? I mean, Bez or Baz or Bozo, whatever his name was, looked pretty knackered after shaking maracas on a three-minute single, and he was better fuelled than me. I’m really not up to hefting 4.5 kilos of wine around for 4 minutes at a time. I presume that Baron Rothschild has a machine to do this for him. Or a peasant.

So I decided that “3 or 4 minutes” was a euphemism, as in “I’ll savour this wine in my mouth for 3 or 4 minutes before I swallow it”.

I shan’t baffle you with the technical terms used by those of us in the winemaking game, but a sequence follows over several days of adding stuff, shaking, waiting, then repeating. In the end, you add some more stuff, which is clearly both non-vegan and non-natural and fine by me. Then “shake for ten seconds to mix, and replace cap.” What, you shake it for ten seconds without a cap? Are they mad? Never mind a demijohn of red wine, I wouldn’t do that with a recalcitrant ketchup bottle.

The next stage, bottling, will be pursued in about a week, “when the wine is clear”. Frankly, I may have no idea whether it is clear or not, because it is red. If it goes literally clear, something has gone horribly wrong. Or I have succeeded in turning wine into water.


Thursday, 28 February 2019

The Sunshine Counties

So, a couple of weeks ago, PK and I are at this tasting of Hampshire wines. Just looking at the phrase Hampshire wines gives me a bit of a start: go back a generation and it would have been the cue for a flurry of cheap gags about Derbyshire sherry and the clarets of Aberystwyth, but such are the times we live in that we go along quite looking forward to it. And yes, it is all very pleasant, although PK is frustrated at not being able to snoop around the smartyboots private club in which the event is taking place, on account of the wines of Hampshire being kept sequestered in a special basement with its own tradesmen's entrance.

That aside, what do we find? Basically a roomful of sparkling whites, about two still wines and a load of people murmuring suavely away at each other. Nothing wrong with that; we toil round the tables along with the other cognoscenti (Oz Clarke!) and I think come out finally in favour of the Hambledon Classic Cuvée; or it might be the Danebury Madeleine Angevine. Either way I forget to pick up a pencil at the check-in desk and now it's gone out of my head.

What I do recall, though, is that a) there is a definite regionality or, at least, identity, in the stuff we try, which is charming, especially given the charm of Hampshire itself, one of my favourite counties, and b) for all that, it is kind of underwhelming: a lot of crisp, slightly virtuous, Englishy hints of apples and hedgerows, a whiff of bicarb, but also a very slightly tragic undertow of Babycham - I mean, a really top-notch Babycham, as good as Babycham could ever get, but there all the same.

The upshot? Given that I've been droning on about the latter-day thrill that is English wine, I come out of the the tasting conflicted. Why is it all so nearly good without getting completely across the finish line? Is it the wine witholding or is it me? I feel I have to act. First move is to bring round a bottle of Camel Valley Cornish white sparkliing to the PK house where he and Mrs K are having some people round, plus me and the wife, for a sophisticated three-courses-plus-cheese dinner such as I can I only dream of confecting. This is in order to answer the question that PK and I keep fatuously shouting at each other at the tasting: Would you serve this at a dinner party?

Well, yes, it gets served and everyone makes polite noises about it, but it is still pretty much Babycham, the sort of Babycham you might get in Business Class on Cathay Pacific, yes, but Babycham. So, on to phase two.

Phase two is a bottle of New Hall Bacchus 2016 Reserve which someone must have brought round to our place and which I must, equally, have stuffed away against just such an eventuality. Essex-based, this one, and a tantalisingly bland 10.5%, so no risk of running amok even if I drink the bottle in one. As it happens, it lingers for three days before I get to the end of it and what do you know? It's definitively pleasant, without quite ever being there. I mean, it's fine, but so unassertive it's hard to know if I'm actually drinking it or only think I am.

On the other hand, it does befriend me in an odd sort of way. I start to think of it fondly, with its self-effacing semi-presence in the bottom of the fridge, a drink I can take or leave without knowing which of these two I have actually done, but a companion nonetheless, a modest tipple on the way to something else, perhaps, something shoutier. I could go for another bottle if it came my way.

Which leads us back (doesn't it always) to the fact that there is a nice little niche here for something genteel, tempered, very English in a Georgian domestic architecture, country garden sort of way, except that the booze costs twice as much as it should. And until English winemakers get some serious economies of scale - about half southern England under vines should do it - there the matter rests. Given the way the planet's burning up, I would say they've got about six weeks to act.


Thursday, 21 February 2019

The game name

Of course it was the name which caught my eye. The late Jack Bruce was one of the greatest bass guitarists ever, a man who merged jazz and rock techniques, the member of Cream who wrote their best-known numbers, and a chap who was not a stranger to the bottle. Oh, sorry – this is Bruce Jack.

Apologies for the confusion. There may be people who have been christened Simon Paul, Charles Ray or Vincent Gene – but they haven’t put their name on a wine label. It would be the same if I'd seen a bottle of whisky labelled Daniel Jack. 

It’s not Bruce Jack’s fault, obviously. I blame the parents. But there is his name, celebrity-sized, like an Ian Botham red wine, or a UB40 red red wine. Little wonder I thought it was from the estate of Jack Bruce.

And while we’re used to seeing winemakers’ names on labels, albeit not quite so large, we’re not really used to seeing their photos. You don’t see pictures of Louis Jadot, or Michel Chapoutier, on their labels. But here on his back label is Bruce himself, with his sleeves rolled up, ready for action, ready to, er, “Collect new board from shaper…”

Come again? I think this may be something to do with surfing. It is not a diary item in many wine circles. And call me narrow-minded, but if you’re looking at the actual winemaker’s name and face, and you’re about to buy his product, surely you want to believe that he’s been thinking about making wine? Not about buggering off to his surfboard shaper?

This is particularly important when the wine is being marketed entirely on the name, the face and the character of the winemaker himself. Bruce Jack launched his South African wines in the UK at the turn of the year. Bruce has a background in big, mass-market blended wines like Kumala, which might or might not be a selling point to UK consumers. And according to his website, his wines “reflect the culmination of the lessons I am still learning”, if you would like to sort that sentence out.

Bruce Jack doesn’t just have a story, or values, or a philosophy – Bruce Jack has all three. There are several abstruse thoughts from Bruce Jack on the back label. Some even have a connection to winemaking. “The land has an energy of memory”, and “The real disco is below the soil’s surface”. Others include “Imagination is sanctuary enough.” Sorry?

Of course we’re all buying into concepts of some kinds when we buy a bottle of wine, often to do with heritage, connoisseurship or status. But the more you have to philosophise on your website, the clearer it is that wine itself cannot convey such things as “fairness”, and “humbleness”, and “surfing”.

And sure enough, the wine itself is a perfectly decent Shiraz – steady, straightforward, not over fruity and with a nice touch of bright, peppery spiciness. It’s a red middleweight, not a purple bruiser, and  it will happily take down a herby sausage. I have no complaints.

But it was not the “thrilling experience” which Bruce Jack somewhat ambitiously promises for £6.25. Nor did I get a taste which reflected the fact that Bruce Jack wines “continually interrogate, and expose the folly through our actions, of information from those acting in opposition to our values.” 

Which isn't exactly Russell Bertrand.


Thursday, 14 February 2019

Serious Martinis

So while the DIY booze fumes in the darkness (down from one hectic belch every second to a lethargic burp a minute) I decide to try out the pro cocktail making set my mixologist son gave me for Christmas. At the time, he handed it over with many stern injunctions as to the correct use of the various bits and which cocktails were best made with such uncompromising tools. I tried to retain this information but a) I have trouble remembering, among other things, who was The Beatles' producer, so it's pretty much in one ear these days and b) the only drink I really like out of all the confections open to me is a Dry Martini, or its equivalent, a Gin and French, veering towards the latter on account of a liking for French vermouths.

That said, it is a wonderful piece of kit. The mixing vessel is made of an incredibly durable glass with a lattice pattern cut into it for traction; you can clap the stainless steel strainer over the mouth of the vessel and pour single-handed, with one of those eye-boggling metre-long cascades from mixer to glass; there is a long-handled spoon with a special twist in the stem so that, with the correct grip, you can stir the ingredients in the latticed vessel without having to do anything more than merely shift your hand in a gentle sideways to-and-fro; there's is a measure with two sizes built in; there's even a vicious peeler for lemons and other fruit. Put together it has a purposeful solidity that you only find in motor cars from the 1950's or Joseph Conrad's prose.

And what do you know? Some people have come to stay with us and I am going to lay a Martini/Gin and French on them, because they don't have to try and get home afterwards. The gin is Tanqueray; the vermouth, Dolin; the extras are ice and a lemon twist. My son also gave me a lot of advice about how, exactly, to combine the twist with the contents of the glass and indeed, the glass itself (rubbing it around the rim so that the lemon zest reaches the drinker's nose a fraction of a second before the gin fumes; even applying it to the stem of the Martini glass so that the drinker's fingers, too, acquire a hint of playfulness) so I do my best. Holding the long-stemmed spoon between middle and third fingers in the approved style is weirdly satisfying, and, yes, the spoon does rotate unhurriedly, combining iced meltwater, gin and vermouth into a glistening, fragrant liquor, the scent of booze rising deliciously.

I take a couple of tastes to check for strength and quality then pour the precious stuff into some fabulous Martini glasses, also gifted to us and as stylish as the Empire State Building. I do my thing with the lemon twists. It's a kind of perfection - except, have I made enough? The Gin and French looks a tiny bit lost in the conical heaven of the glassware. I've used a single big measure of gin per person, plus a measure of Dolin in a four-to-one ratio. It tastes pretty damn good, but should I have doubled up the amounts? Only snag with that is, if you do get outside a really brimming glassful of basically gin, you, or at least I and people like me, find that speech is a thing of the past and that one's hands have turned into factory reject hands, useful only for pointing and spilling. Answer is obviously to go for 1½ measures of gin per person with French to match. But it doesn't occur to me in time.

As it is we make the most of our Gin and Frenches; getting the benefit without quite getting the full effect. A mood of very slight constraint descends upon us. It's possible that what everyone wanted, in the final analysis, was to get completely shitfaced - and this liberation, a liberation that only a drink like a Gin and French can provide, has been denied us. From which I think I take away the understanding that if I'm going to use my fabulous Martini kit in the future, I'm going to have to step up and make my drinks rhino-stoppingly strong. Otherwise the drama implicit in the act of taking out a cocktail mixer can never be fully realised; the intention is never properly consummated. And we all know what that leads to.


Thursday, 7 February 2019

Gentleman winemaker me

I’m sure it wasn’t like this for Baron Eric de Rothschild.

For some reason, I have gone along with CJ’s crackpot idea of making our own wines. It is one thing for him to try and emulate or even better the bottom-shelf bargain wines that he buys; quite another for me to try and echo the classier products that I pursue.

But then I considered the respect I have for the makers of my wines. Perhaps becoming a winemaker, albeit a modest one, could be a means of claiming first-name terms with the likes of “fellow winemaker” (as I could rightfully call him) Eric. Or with Aubert at the Domaine de la Romanée Conti. I might acquire the urbanity of someone like Leoville-Barton’s distinguished Anthony Barton. I certainly echo his philosophy that “I don’t make investment wines”. No indeed, not in my kitchen.

I had kept quiet at home about this mad plan of CJ’s, and hidden the equipment, and a hoard of my empty bottles, in the cellar,. I anticipated an unfavourable reaction from Mrs K to the idea of liquids fermenting around the house (or, as I must begin to call it, the proprieté). She did, it emerged, wonder why our recycling had been uncharacteristically light on bottles. But she seemed remarkably relaxed when I broached the plan, her first and only real anxiety being that she might have to taste the results.

And so it begins, although I remain disdainful of CJ’s use of the term “Home Brew”, just as I am troubled by purchasing wine-making equipment from a company called Lovebrewing. This is vinification, surely,

I, too, watch the briskly enthusiastic brewlover Richard making wine in his t-shirt and jeans. He does not reflect my vision of an urbane gentleman winemaker. He sports a t-shirt from an outdoor apparel company, and stubble unrelated to a designer. Unlike CJ I do not become fixated by the contents of his washing machine, but I do notice that the on-screen caption suggests he is “sterlising” (sic), an attention to detail on my part which I hope will prove beneficial.

For I am nothing if not a stickler for detail when it comes to recipes. I am indeed (as I explained to Julian Barnes when he gave us our André Simon Award, a Pedant In The Kitchen.  So I am concerned that the airlock I have been sent has a yellow cap, and not, as referred to in the accompanying instructions, red. This is the kind of thing which can lead to disaster.

Anyway, I plump for making cabernet sauvignon, as close as I can get to my beloved claret. With increasing confidence I wield the likes of hydrometer and airlock. I sterilise, and mix, and test. (Well, do you know the exact temperature of the hot water from your tap? Well, do you?) I mix in oak chips, because I’m short on barrels.

And finally I have a demijohn of foaming liquid, coloured a threatening purple, which I stash carefully away. I have somewhat gratifying stains of grape juice on my hands, although before Mrs K returns I carefully clean the somewhat less gratifying stains of grape juice off the kitchen surfaces.

I managed to persuade Mrs K to allow the wine to ferment in the currently warmest place in the house, where we dry our laundry – but in order to protect the surroundings, I must keep my demijohn inside a binliner, inside a bucket. Is that really necessary? Well, the instructions say that if fermentation becomes “quite lively”, then “liquid can be forced out of the airlock and end up decorating your floor and walls!”. Not a situation Eric probably had to deal with – or worse, explain to his wife.

Now, the waiting begins. But at least there is one aspect of this where I feel I may have gained ground over CJ. I have come up with a suitable name for my wine (no, no, you’ll have to wait) and have begun designing an appropriate label. This at least may have the sophistication, the style, which I aim for in the wines that I enjoy. Whether the wine itself will live up to that, time will tell.


Thursday, 31 January 2019

Home Brew IV

So the kit has arrived. Not the gear I was originally toying with, but - following a discussion with PK - a starter pack from Lovebrewing, containing a Beaverdale Cabernet Shiraz ingredients box as well as a couple of demijohns, a siphon, a thermometer, hydrometer, all sorts. And he's acquired the same set, too, so that we can both attempt the same muck and compare our results.The tension is palpable.

Slightly moreso when I get round to watching the DVD which comes included. In this, an affable bloke called Richard stands at his kitchen sink and tells you how to make your own wine. Fair enough, except that his starter pack contains one enormous plastic bucket instead of two plastic demijohns; and he's bustling through the techniques required as if he's late for a train. I have difficulty keeping up. I sit there wondering whether to use the hideous old bucket in the laundry room to make wine in - and is there any way I can get it clean enough - as he flings materials and tapwater around on screen. Then I realise that his washing machine is in camera shot and that it contains some laundry. I become transfixed by this, trying to decide what's actually in the wash. Bedding, I reckon after a while, or towels. Finally I settle for bedding, at which point he's already tearing open sachets of yeast and additives as fast as his hands will let him and I realise that, just as in chemistry classes at school, I have strayed intellectually, could not tell anyone what I have witnessed and consequently have no faith that when I try the experiment it will come out anything like it's meant to.

The good news is that Beverdale tell you what to do on a single sheet of pink paper packed with the plastic bladder of concentrated grape juice that is their stock-in-trade. This is more like it. I sterilise my gear, failing to use warm water, with the result that my hands are blocks of ice by the time everything's clean. I then admix grape juice and tap water in a demijohn, add some kind of ground-up oak powder for that fine oaky flavour at the end, chuck in the yeast, agitate, examine the resulting purple treacly foam with the hydrometer (bang on 1080, two successive readings). It smells a tiny bit rank, so I seal it up with an airlock and stand back. For some reason I am now mournful that it all should have taken so little time.

Of course, it's not over. There's a lot of jaunty chat from DVD Richard about the right temperature at which to ferment your brew. It is alarmingly high: 23ºC is acceptable for much of the time. We are in the middle of the coldest snap of the winter and anyway, our house tops out at 21.5º during the day, before dropping off noticeably at night. Richard (who's wearing a T shirt, I mean it's clearly high summer at the time of filming) suggests various ways to keep your brew up to temperature, among them an electric thermal belt to wrap around the bucket/demijohn, a electric hot platform and an immersion heater. He also mentions cladding the thing in a blanket, which is what I go for - a blanket of bubblewrap, the stuff the demijohn was packed in, a nice symmetry, no extra cost and better for the planet, I factitiously assume.

So there it is, in the shower at the top of the house where the air is warmest. If the demijohn explodes for any reason, the wreckage will be contained by the shower itself. There's also a heated towel rail nearby to keep things toasty. The demijohn is swathed from top to toe in bubblewrap. It looks oddly vulnerable on the floor of the shower. I leave the thermometer on top of the bubblewrap to let my wine know that I care. 21º it's saying, which I can live with. There are one or two lethargic bloops of gas coming up. The longer the fermentation takes, supposedly, the better the wine. At this rate, I will be bottling at some point in 2021. But you know what? PK hasn't even started.