Thursday, 20 June 2019

Thursday, 13 June 2019

A lexicon for wine today

Just take a look at this wine, Lion And The Lily. So called because it’s “Bold like a lion, elegant like a lily”. Obviously.

The wine is described as “chic”, a characteristic which rarely finds its way into tasting notes; and some eyebrows may be raised by this rosé’s claim to be “The perfect wine to pair with Hamburgers”. But what particularly intrigues me is the use on its label of the verb, “to vint”. It says that it is “Grown & Vinted in France”. Which is a new one on me.

Does “vinted” refer to its harvesting, making, blending, marketing or selling? Does the term “vinted” refer to anything specific? Or could it be that the creation of a contemporary wine, with all of the commercial, industrial and branding processes involved, requires a new word in order to describe that operation attractively – and “concocted” doesn’t quite work?

Perhaps we do need new terms to keep up with modern wine culture. Not that “vinted” is new as such – Trollope referred to “the best wine that ever was vinted”, although it’s still not clear what that actually means – so perhaps some older terms could be similarly reclaimed. But whether it’s to describe the wines themselves, or the ways in which we now drink them, perhaps we could use some more words and phrases which simply weren’t needed in the days of the butt and the tappit hen.

Belfer – a very cheap wine, probably supermarket. “Wow, that’s a bit of a belfer”. Derivation: “bottom shelf”. Like the wine.

Spence – A household space for storing boxes of wine, eg understairs, which cannot really be called a cellar. “Is there another bottle in the spence?” (cf Chaucer, The Summoner’s Tale, “Al vinolent as Botel in the spence”)

Needle – a modest portion of wine, akin to a tasting sample delivered via a Coravin – “Try a needle of this one…”

Lefty – A bottle of wine brought by a guest, whose quality cannot be vouched for by the host. “Do you mind if I open a lefty?” Derivation: disputed: 1. such a wine is “left” by a visitor; 2. it tends to get opened when there’s nothing else “left”; 3. a lefty is never quite…right.

Spoonstander – a strong, syrupy red wine, esp. Shiraz

Smite – That modest amount of wine left in a bottle which isn’t enough to be worth saving for a following evening, and so might as well be drunk now, even if it’s just a bit more than you actually intended to drink. “Oh, look, there’s only a smite left, I’ll finish it off tonight” (cf Milton, Areopagitica, ‘It smites us into darkness’)

Greeted – “The wine was greeted in Bristol in 2018” – an attractive way to describe the moment when the bulk shipping container’s sluices were opened.

Undertop – to refill somebody’s glass with as little wine as you can get away with. “Can you undertop James next time, darling, he’s getting a bit loud.”

Mulberried – to have one’s teeth stained with red wine

Pumped – a wine which has been properly vac-u-vin’d, as opposed to someone having shoved the rubber bung back in without pumping the air out as you discover to your annoyance several days later. “Is this one actually pumped, darling?”

Sixer – a supermarket offer of a 25% discount when buying six bottles. “Hey, there’s a sixer on at Waitrose next week!”

Turn tail – to finish a bottle of white and upend it in an ice bucket, raising the issue of whether another is required. “Oh, have we turned its tail, then?”


Thursday, 6 June 2019

Thursday, 30 May 2019

A case to consider

It’s The Case of Ten Bottles. And sadly, it’s not a Sherlock Holmes story.

It’s an “introductory case”, offering 10 bottles of wine and two Riedel wineglasses. As opposed to 12 bottles of actual wine. These are merchants who say they are “determined to break the mould”, which calling 10 bottles a “case” certainly does in my book.

Is the ten-bottle case now a thing? Are we entering a world of a one-piece suit, a pack of 18 cigarettes and a box of five eggs?

We know all about “shrinkflation”, with fewer biscuits in a packet, less chocolate in a bar, a smaller number of fish fingers in a box. Sometimes they change the size of the packaging, sometimes they don’t; my packets of digestives now have an empty, loose bit of packet at the end which once contained a couple of additional biscuits. Unless you examine the quantity or weight, you think you’re still getting a bar, or a packet, or in this instance a case – but it actually contains a bit less.

In this case (and I mean “case”) it’s 2/12ths less. A reduction of 16.6%.

I don’t think they are trying to fool anyone. It’s clearly an introductory sampling, for first-time customers, such novices that they don’t even possess two decent wineglasses. Novices, indeed, who may not even know that a case is usually 12 bottles. But then, why call it a case?

It was bad enough when people started selling six-bottle cases. Wasn’t there a time when only champagne was sold in six-bottle cases? Partly, I believed, because of the weight of the (thicker glass) bottles, which made a 12-bottle case unwieldy; and partly because the cost was so high that people rarely bought 12 bottles at a time.

Now, the six bottle case is everywhere. Convenient, yes, lighter, and a less expensive single outlay; remember how Majestic’s customers increased when they reduced their minimum purchase from a twelve-bottle case to a six. But is it true that posh wine merchants call the six-bottle a Pauper’s Case? And it’s so confusing, when you think you’ve found a good buy by the case in a list, and then find it’s actually twice as expensive per bottle as you thought.

So why call it a case at all? Why not call twelve bottles a case, and six bottles a box?

And if, on decimalisation grounds, you feel that ten is a better measure than a dozen, because it makes it so much easier to calculate the cost of an individual bottle, then standardise that – only call it a "decem" or something.

But of course it’s the tradition of “a case of wine”, with all its social resonance, which is behind this. If you’re buying wine in quantity, any quantity, then the marketers think that by calling your selection a “case”, you feel you’re becoming a more significant wine purchaser, a descendant of George Saintsbury, that you’ve risen to the status of starting a cellar yourself, even if you actually live in one. No wonder they “introduce” you to multiple wine purchase with a “case”, even if it actually comes in a carton.

So how low will merchants sink to employ the term? How minimal can a multiple purchase be in order to call it “a case”? Merchants selling two bottles generally have the dignity to refer to them as “duos” or “gift boxes”.

But step forward Berry Bros & Rudd, because here is a Berry Bros Classic Collection mixed case… of three bottles. 

A “case” of three bottles. Three. From Berry Bros, of all people. I thought they were old enough to know better.


Thursday, 23 May 2019

Bordeaux Grands Crus Classés 2015 - 2018

This week's style icon: David Mamet

A bar. CJ and PK are in a bar, seated at a table, drinking. They have just come from a tasting of a selection of Bordeaux Grands Crus Classés in Church House, SW1

PK: So this is the thing...and it's not just me saying this.
CJ: Uh-huh.
PK: Because this is, what? Look at me.
CJ: Alright.
PK: It's widely held.
CJ: It is.
PK: As day follows night. As the rich man takes his tithe.
CJ: Of course.
PK: Fuckin' right it is. But if.
CJ: If?
PK: What if? Look, look, what if there was there was...Jesus, look at me. At my age. These people, I beg them.
CJ: For pennies.
PK: You said it.
CJ: I do.
PK: I'm begging and they have...all this...
CJ: Riches.
PK: Exactly. Is that the law?
CJ: It's the unwritten law.
PK: It's bullshit.
CJ: As the duck flies south in the winter...
PK: Exactly.
CJ: To furnish his winter nest...
PK: So I'm saying. And this is just me saying. Listen to this. I'm saying we go back in.
CJ: Back in.
PK: And not just anywhere. We go to the Pomerol table.
CJ: That's a table.
PK: It's two hundred notes a bottle.
CJ: I hear you.
PK: We go to it.
CJ: Directly.
PK: Or indirectly. The point is...we're at the table.
CJ: Uh-huh.
PK: And a bottle goes...
CJ: Huh?
PK: We.
CJ: So...
PK: A bottle is removed. From that table.
CJ: Do they..?
PK: It goes. A whole bottle. We are at the table. A bottle goes.
CJ: Do they give us..?
PK: No.
CJ: We..?
PK: If that's how you want to see it.
CJ: They have people.
PK: I don't know they have people? A bottle goes. It goes to us.
CJ: People all around the table.
PK: I don't know that?
CJ: Do we..?
PK: By an action. We go back in. The bottle goes. We go out.
CJ: We take the bottle..?
PK: Those are just words.
CJ: We..?
PK: Take, leave, sample, liberate, possess. What are these words? There is no word, beg. Jesus. You say, that's a man? How do you know that? Fuckin' years I put up with this. Less than nothing they give you. Like they're superior. 'Oh this, oh that. Oh take this. This is all'...Pieces of...and we're grateful? No. We go back in. Maybe you wear a coat. A large coat.
CJ: In the..?
PK: Or a container. You got a bag. I say, 'Oh this, oh that', you have...
CJ: A receptacle?
PK: The bottle goes in.
CJ: And you're saying..?
PK: I finish my conversation.
CJ: That's what you're having.
PK: As civilised human beings.
CJ: I take the bottle.
PK: We leave.
CJ: Straight out.
PK: It's out of the ground. What can they do?
CJ: All I'm saying is...
PK: What?
CJ: It's not...
PK: What?
CJ: What I'm saying. They have people.
PK: You sad sack. You fuckin' sad sack.
CJ: It's..
PK: Don't talk to me. In fuckin' life, there is a time and then...what are you left with? That moment. You look back. Who is there to judge?
CJ: I have to go.
PK: You fuckin' pussy.
CJ: I don't have a coat.
PK: I have a coat.
CJ: I have to leave.
PK: Alright. And this is me talking. Wait. We change our focus.
CJ: Fuck you.
PK: Okay. Listen. We go down town.
CJ: What?
PK: Give me this much respect. Alright? We go to another place.
CJ: To the..?
PK: Not so rich as the Pomerol.
CJ: A lesser..?
PK: Pomerol, maybe they are watching.
CJ: It's possible.
PK: Another table, it's not so...
CJ: Not so...
PK: A smaller one, a lesser label, they'd want us to take it. Montrose. I don't know. Get the name out. If we just asked. We're doing them a service.
CJ: We tell them.
PK: Explain.
CJ: Alright.
PK: Who could resist?
CJ: Down there, it's fifty notes a bottle. Sixty.
PK: What's that to them? In reality?
CJ: Uh-huh.
PK: Alright. I'm asking. I'm asking.
CJ: Alright. But you have to wear the coat.


Thursday, 16 May 2019

A Lifetime in Wine

• It’s a fresher’s week staple that tastes just fine in a polystyrene cup. Stonker (Innuendo Wines, £5.99) is an Aussie Shiraz from their More Bosh, Less Dosh range, which can hold its own against Monster Munch. Screwcapped for easy access. You’ll be surprised by its length, especially on carpeting…

• Anyone going backpacking this summer should take the opportunity to try some of the sadly neglected wines of the Far East. It’s only really in their local context that you can appreciate the unique qualities of these distinctive wines, where they can take their place alongside alongside Bali belly and the Rangoon runs. They rarely reach the shelves back home, so  you can enthuse about them later with little fear of contradiction…

• The Dine-in Meal Deal is back! You get a main, side dish and dessert, plus a bottle of wine, all for just £12. That’s right, your choice of a bottle of red or white!* (*Terms and conditions apply. The word ‘choice’ refers to either our Lite Brite White, or our Ruffan Reddie; alternatives not available.) For a romantic evening in, all you need are the candles…

• So my advice, when you’re out for a special meal, is never go for the second cheapest wine; that’s the one they think you’ll pick, and so it’s the one with the mark-up for mugs. (And they don’t know that we’ve seen through the tactic, because they never read articles about wine.) Instead, ask the sommelier for advice. It’s easy to think that wine waiters are just trying to persuade you to spend more, but they’re actually there to help, which surprisingly often does seem to involve persuading you to spend more…

• You can use our handy calculator to work out just how much wine you need for your wedding. Each bottle contains three or four glasses or possibly five at the stretch suggested by her mother, and an average guest will drink possibly half a bottle with the meal if his father is anything to go by. Add a glass of Prosecco per guest upon arrival, possibly three if there’s anywhere guests can hide their empties while the waiters are still circulating. The toasts will require a glass of proper Champagne per guest, even those who by then really shouldn’t have any more. So that’s three or four, or five, plus one, or two, plus another one. Or thereabouts.

• Thanks for signing up to Frogthwarts. We know that as a new home owner, you need to serve your neighbours and friends from something you can call a wine cellar but still fit under the stairs. That’s why our subscription service will deliver you each month a selection of wine that's socially impressive (ie French)…

• When there’s cause for celebration, why not enjoy an English sparkling wine instead of boring old Champagne? If you’re toasting a special occasion, like a new arrival, a new job, or a big birthday, you can now drink a native sparkling wine without anyone thinking you’re tight-fisted, because the price is similar, even if the taste isn’t really…

• As a regular buyer of our fine wines, we wanted to let you know about a small but very special parcel we have obtained. Of course you’ve heard of Chateau Trèscher; but on the other side of the valley and across the river, so really just next door, lies the lesser-known Chateau Inconnu. Their wines cost just a fraction of their neighbour, yet are said to be almost its equal by many in our sales department…

• Don’t miss out on this year’s en primeur. You may have heard stories of a terrible harvest in Bordeaux, but we’ve found some real gems amongst the dross, which we’re convinced will ripen up magnificently. And look at these IB prices! (NB: Our IB prices do not include duty, VAT, storage charges, price of eventual delivery or opportunity cost.) There are some real treats in store for those who can buy now for drinking in maybe fifteen years’ time…

• Fourteen years ago, Dad bought this case of Chateau Ververgood en primeur. I know he would have wanted to serve it to his friends, so I’ve opened up the case, and it’s just a shame he isn’t here to share it with you. And that it hasn’t quite turned out as he might have hoped. But then, the same could be said of his swimming…


Thursday, 9 May 2019

Home Brew - The Aftermath

So now the dust has settled and our dreams have come to nothing, what have we learned? Not much, I think it's fair to say, except that home-made wine is harder to make than some people would have you believe. From the end of January to the start of May this Godawful stuff has been hanging around the house, both promise and threat, and to be honest the best bit was when it was fermenting in the upstairs shower, burping to itself and releasing a gentle aroma of unwashed vests from time to time. Hope is such a dreadful thing.

And now? Four bottles of red sewage are sitting among all the other bottles of professionally-made grog, looking for all the world as if they have a right to be there.

Possible courses of action:

1) Leave them another month or so in the near-mystical belief that they will somehow settle down and transform themselves into something I can pour into a glass and swallow. I did test the one bottle we opened for alcohol content and got - if I can read my hydrometer properly and manage the resulting arithmetic - a reading of 10.85% by volume, which puts it a shade stronger than Tixylix but not so as you'd want to shout about it. Sheer inertia will see to it that the remaining four hang around longer than they should, so I can see myself taking a sip in a few weeks' time, out of sheer devilry.

Probability: High

2) Tip the lot away, then go to the utility room as we grandly name it, and stare at the now redundant demijohns and other wine-making parphernalia, shaking my head and making noises between my tongue and teeth indicative of self-reproach and despair.

Probability: High

3) Try and use the DIY wine in cooking. Trouble is, I only know two recipes which seriously call for red wine, one involving chicken, the other beef. Chicken tends to come out better; beef just tastes like beef stew, even down to the stringiness of the beef, no matter what cut I use. Do I want to commit a pile of expensive ingredients to the pot, only to discover at the end of the cooking process that my homebrew has hideously denatured the lot?

Probability: Medium to low

4) Look up other people's experiences on the internet. See how common my experience is and if there's anything I can do to redeem the situation, short of spending more money on bottles of wine rectifier or sachets of re-structuring powder. Should I watch the video which came with the kit all the way through to the end? Perhaps I missed something. This, plus some time Googling my failure, could be a morning well spent. To do it, of course, I would have to have a relatively robust, positive outlook-type psychological constitution plus an attention span long enough to last a morning. I mean, on YouTube all those months ago it looked about as difficult as making a cup of coffee.

Probability: Low

5) Get rid of it by adulterating commercially-made wines with undetectably small percentages of homebrew. Actually, PK came up with this idea, inspired by the way top French winemakers introduce tiny - I mean, I%, 3% - additions of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to a basic Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot mix to give their products a nuance, an intimation of something other. In this case, the idea would be for the principal red to smother my stuff completely rather than allow itself to be fragranced by it in any way. It would be a question of niggardly eking out. I'm tempted by this, I have to say; although if I have any sense, I'll Google the process first to see if it results in blindness or insanity and what the odds of that might be.

Probability: Medium

6) Find some other, completely alternative, use for it - cleaning the front steps with it, using it as for anti-corrosion in the car cooling system, trying it as a wood preservative, textile dye, watercolourist's medium, anti-attack spray, slug trap, tasteless practical joke, room scent (with diffuser sticks), enema, facepaint, sink degreaser, hair dye, Dadaist commentary on the middle classes, communion wine, untraceable ink for ransom notes, hair tonic, late Soviet-era borscht, hair remover.

Probability: Low to zero

7) Observe, in a moment of more hopeful lucidity, that, whatever else it may have done, my homebrew has at least given me a full but futile agenda. And an agenda, of whatever sort, is something we all need, especially as we get older. Or am I being too cheerful about this?

Probability: Borderline hundred per cent


You can read all the posts tracing our home winemaking saga in chronological order on one page here. Or you can read or download for e-readers a text-only PDF here.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

The Great Sediment Wine Tasting

“Well… life all comes down to a few moments,” says Bud Fox, just before he goes into Gordon Gekko’s office for the first time in the movie Wall Street. “And this is one of 'em...”

It was time to taste our home-made wines, the culmination of a project which CJ finally steered us into some three months ago  . The equipment had been bought, the technology mastered, the wines made, bottled and matured (and, in one case at least, labelled). We had avoided potential spillages, floods and fermentation explosions. Now for the dangerous bit.

There were three wines on the night. There was Piqué, created of course by myself, PK; there was a wine garishly labelled Lobo e Falcao, a label which Mrs K mistakenly believed that CJ had created himself, until it was explained that he had, typically, just reused an old empty bottle; and, as a control, there was a “professional” bottle, of Waitrose Soft Chilean red, which is CJ’s £4.99 staple.

Sadly we were unable to replicate the tastings of homemade wine which appear widely on YouTube. Those seem to go quite well, and nearly always end with someone raising their glass and saying something like, “Y’know, it’s really not bad at all!” However, we simply couldn’t go along with two of their common aspects, which are that most of them seem to be conducted by chaps in (a) cheaply equipped utility rooms, and (b) shorts.

Our own tasting was conducted blind, in which we were ably assisted by our spouses; while we waited outside the room, the wines were poured into glasses A, B and C by our lovely assistants (© Debbie McGee). This 30-second audio clip will introduce you to some sounds rarely heard at formal wine tastings, and give you a flavour of the evening. Not the flavours – you wouldn’t want that:


Anyway, these are CJ’s notes on the three wines:

A: Gasworks, glue, rotten fruit. Bent double with revulsion on first taste. Emetic. Bent double on the second taste. Repulsive. Not a bad nose.

B: Burning carpet, scorches the tongue, doesn't seem to stop. On the other hand, it doesn't make me bend double. Borderline drinkable

C: Smouldering mattress, liquorice in puddle water, makes me bend double again. Most repulsive. The horror the horror

And PK’s:

A: This had a bouquet which can only be described as disturbing, blending as it did the scent of plastic with that of an unclean bottom. It tasted terrible, a nasty flavour of artificial fruit, like a packet of sweets left for some time in a warm car door pocket.

B: Reminiscent of being on a train with brake pad problems, or breathing in fumes of burning rubber from a distant riot. This one took me to a horrible, dark place of bitterness and nastiness.

C: With a strangely caramel bouquet, I felt this one was blander than the other two, smoother, less pungent and acerbic, and therefore marginally less repulsive.

And the reveal:

A was CJ
B was Waitrose
C was PK’s

What was peculiar was our polarisation. None of the three was actually enjoyable, but that which one of us hated most, the other hated least. So awarding points on a 3,2 and 1 basis, each of the wines ended up scoring 4.

Basically, they were all terrible. Which, worryingly, puts us on a level playing field with Waitrose…


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.