Wednesday 15 December 2010

The Ugly, the Bad and the Good

Ugly: The wife ordered a vast amount of cheap Cava from Tesco to see us through the Festive Period. It worked out, with discounts, at around £4 a bottle. Two cases of the stuff. In-laws, kids, disintegrating relatives, myself: all would be catered for, superabundantly and at a bargain price. But Tesco failed to deliver on the appointed day, or any other day for that matter, and it is now impossible to get an answer out of them either by phone or email. So no cheap fizzy for all the waifs and foundlings and orphans. It is Victorian in its cruelty.

Bad: Or not, depending on your point of view. People come over for dinner. Fiendishly, I decant one bottle of my cubi wine (the Terraventoux) into an unmarked container. At the same time, I decant the contents of the Portia 2006 Ribera del Duero that I won at the Wine Show, into another unmarked container. The Terraventoux works out at roughly €1 a bottle, the Portia at, say, €14, depending on where you get it. Roast guinea-fowl to eat with it, a real production. Yes, I tell myself, this will blow the whole premise of costly wines wide apart: my guests will taste both beverages and pronounce each as good as the other and I, with my ruthless austerity-binge take on drink, will enjoy a moment of high triumph as I explain that the ultra-cheap is every bit as satisfying as the expensive.

Unfortunately, there is a clear consensus that the Terraventoux, although refreshingly delicious, isn't quite in the same league as the Portia, which is drained to the last drop, amid low murmurings of This is really very nice and Is it all gone? Since no-one professes to be a winehead, that's about as far as the appreciation gets in purely technical terms, but the trend is clear. And I have to admit that, blithe and satisfying as my Grenache-y Terraventoux is, it isn't as complex, lingering, broad or multilayered as my 100% Tempranillo, four-year-old Portia ('A garnet cherry-red wine with intense fruity aromas' as it sportingly announces on the label at the back). But: using price as the determinant, is Portia really fourteen times nicer than Terraventoux? There was a time when I would have said, unquestioningly, no. I'm not so sure, now. Indeed, if I were to compare true like with like, I would actually have to give the Terraventoux a notional price tag of maybe €7, which is roughly what it would cost, retail, bottled and labelled like the Spanish stuff. Half as good: you see my difficulty.

Good: Hats off to PK, who (bless him) has given me a bottle of Sipsmith hand-made gin for my birthday. Yes, I know, gin isn't wine, I can tell the difference. But let me make this absolutely clear: Sipsmith is not only at least fourteen times nicer than mainstream supermarket brush cleaner (to which I am, as a rule, dismally partial), it is about the only gin I have ever tasted which can be drunk neat at room temperature and still taste delicious. As it is, I have been taking it good and cold with a drop of French Vermouth (Noilly Prat, makes one feel a bit like the old Queen Mother with her Dubonnet) and if there is a more invigoratingly hedonistic pre-dinner drink than this then I will eat my hat. This is a super-evolved gin. This is gin as nectar. This is gin which tells a story of complex aromatics and transmogrifying internal warmth. This is a classic Bentley among gins. Just writing about it makes me want to fix up a little glassful (see the photo), but no, it is only two in the afternoon and I must be strong. Thank you, PK!


Wednesday 8 December 2010

The Whale Caller, Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon

Who's responsible for this rubbish? No, not the Sediment blog – sadly, like a guilty schoolboy in a kept-behind class, I am all too aware of who is responsible for this misdemeanour – nor the rubbish on the right (appropriately incorporating this post's subject), but this rubbish:

In the coastal South African town of Hermanus, the Whale Caller waits on the cliffs, calling for the whales to return from the Antarctic waters. 
As you savour this rich red wine, with dark berry fruit and hints of chocolate and spice, you may just catch the strains of the Whale Caller's horn, blowing on the southern wind.

This twaddle is on the label of my latest foray into the disagreeable realms of the sub-£5 wine. And The Whale Caller (Waitrose, £4.29) is a wine with a lot of disagreement.

On the Ocado site – that is, the people who deliver the stuff – there is unanimous approval; six five-star public reviews, only dropping one star in one reviewer’s reckoning for “quality of packaging”, which is pretty odd when you think about it. What exactly is an inferior quality bottle?

The professionals seem ambiguous and, for once, divided. Anthony Rose in the Independent described it as “an affordable glugger” which I found faintly repellent. Do you “glug”? Would you think “glug” an acceptable description of your guests’ drinking manner? Or perhaps those who do “glug” would find this an appealing drink?

Equally, last August, Suzy Atkins in the Telegraph described the 2008 Whale Caller as “ a brill barbie red”. This to me is equally dubious. Does she mean it’s in the territory of potentially poisonous outdoor consumption, inducing stomach cramps and vomiting?

There’s surely more than a whiff of social judgement here. It’s not, you may note, a nice wine to drink at a barbeque, but a brill wine to glug at a barbie. Call me a subtextual post-structuralist, but methinks these are not your average Waitrose customers.

Sipping the wine in my study (he says – judge as ye may) I found it dull and thick. Any shiraz spiciness is flattened out by cabernet sauvignon to leave just a vague, nasal burn. It has a bouquet of diesel before, and a sickly, plastic aftertaste. The whole process of consumption is frankly distasteful.

Fiona Beckett, who also writes in the Guardian, is upfront about the wine (and not its audience) when she blogs that “It's incredibly jammy but not in a nice way with no structure or acidity. The best thing you can say about it is that it's not rubbery. And might be a bit better if you chill it.”

Why did I even buy it? Ah, that I can explain. Every so often, Waitrose offer 25% off all – yes, that’s all – of their wine. Like a mug, I trailed down to my local branch with a rucksack to grab half a dozen bottles of prime plonk. But of course, when I got there, none of the prime plonk was to be seen. Either the local populace had descended on my branch like the wolf on the fold, and stripped it of everything decent; or (as it was carefully phrased to the admirable Victoria Moore, then writing in the Guardian the good stuff had been, to quote the euphemism, “de-emphasised”. Victoria had tried throughout one offer to buy a particular Cornas online, and had been unable to find it. So where do you put them, she asked? "I'm not going to tell you,” replied the manager of Waitrose Wine Direct, “because I don't want you to tell your readers how to find them." So, having found no prime plonk myself, I foolishly settled for some of the cheaper stuff.

Fiona Beckett’s blog attracted a lovely comment from someone who actually lives in Hermanus, SA who says “It doesn't sound like this wine is doing a great job at promoting our little town of Hermanus. We have some wonderful wineries nearby… but I shouldn't think this wine is anything to do with them. 
We also do have a whale crier but his job is to blow his horn to show tourists where the whales are, not to call the whales back from the Antarctic!”

So even the label fails to live up to expectations. Indeed, as I savoured (hem, hem) this rich red wine, I caught the usual sonic background to my household wine consumption: cries of mislaid keys, ringing phones, the thunder of feet and exhortations to turn off lights. I’m afraid I did not catch the strains of the Whale Caller’s horn.

But at least I finally understand the notion of a Barbie wine. It’s like its namesake: malproportioned, badly balanced and tastes of plastic.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

French Consumption

For once, just for once (apart from when I won that tasty Spanish grog the other week) things have gone my way. I was sitting at home the other night, the doorbell rang, it's our friend from the South of France, and he's just driven all the way back from Carpentras with my cubi of TerraVentoux Red fully refreshed, plus a bottle of the primeur. I hereby publicly proclaim my complete devotion to Allan and Sandra (Francophiles extraordinaires) and their incredible generosity, while noting at the same time that they also have some of their very own extra-extra-virgin olive oil coming through in a couple of weeks and that I can scarcely wait.

Observe my familiarity, incidentally, with this chi-chi term primeur, such as would send PK into a tizzy of noddings and approvings. I have carefully laid this precious bottle in my dusty and almost entirely unpopulated wine rack, and am now amassing a collection of empties in which to pour my cubi wine for later consumption, determined not to make the mistake of last time (see the post for 12 October), when I left it in the jerrycan a day or two too long. As long as I can amass enough bottles (why did I chuck out the whisky and the vodka empties? why?) then the next few weeks are going to be joy, just joy, or as near as you get in the modern world.

It's the liberality of the cubi, with its easy-twist plastic tap and its imposing squatness, that so moves me. It says enjoy, shamelessly, in French, with none of the timidity and haunting self-reproach that the middle-class English habitually experience when in the presence of a lot of cheap wine. And it chimes in rather nicely with a incredible picture I found in a Paris Match from 1952, of a French family of four, posing with their entire annual food and drink consumption: Ce Qu'une Famille Française A Mangé Cette Année.

Sponsored by Félix Potin, legendary suppliers of alimentations and boissons to the French public, this showed Maman, Papa and two enfants surrounded by everything they nominally chomped and slurped through in a twelve-month period. I've reproduced a tiny detail, because the original (apart from being, in all probability, copyright) is a double-page spread of scarcely credible eventfulness, containing entire sides of beef, whole pigs, several metric tonnes of bread and potatoes, some game, a lot of charcuterie, enough cheeses to stop an armoured car, a Baroque superabundance of fruit & veg, you name it.

And, of course, alcohol. Three hundred litres of wine; one hundred and sixty-eight litres of beer; fifty-eight litres of cider. The bottles are set out at the feet of the typical French famille (although not typical bons Catholiques, surely, only two kids) like a stockade, behind which they sit with understandable complacency. It's not quite clear whether this represents purely domestic consumption or whether it includes a notional account of what they might have got through outside the home, in restaurants, in the staff canteen, at family parties, funerals etc. Either way, it is described as une ménagère économe, which may or may not be an instance of charming modesty, because, after all, maman and papa are knocking back well over a litre of booze a day between them (the kids are plainly too young), to say nothing of the apéritifs and digestifs (about four litres' worth) which Félix Potin has also bunged in the photo. And this in 1952, less than a decade after the end of the War, at a time when the pathetic Brits had only just got tea off the ration. As an advertisement of French priorities, it is hard to beat; and even now, has a cave-of-wonders feel which combines with a nostalgia for something one has never actually experienced, in a deeply affecting whole.

And it is an image to which, with my cubi and my assortment of rinsed-out old wine bottles, I intend to pay homage.


Thursday 18 November 2010

The Wine Show 2010, Olympia

When I go drinking with CJ, things can sometimes go awry.
But The Wine Show is a simple concept; a bunch of retailers and producers at Olympia, offering their wines to taste, with an admission charge, presumably to deter penniless winos. So, a straightforward day of wine-tasting, then. Only My Affianced raised a note of caution. “A whole day?” she queried. “You’ll be insensible.”
It was neither big nor grand; there were two supermarkets present (M&S and Sainsbury), one mass-market name (Campo Viejo), a few stands offering varieties from their nation (Chile, New Zealand, Australia) – and then several small, individual producers, remarkable primarily for their facial hair. None of the top wine merchants, none of the great names. Yes, there was a stall offering tastings of major Burgundies, but with Clos Vougeot at an additional £15 a taste, both of us baulked. (I say baulked, but CJ practically expired.)
Touring the show with CJ was rather like controlling a dog on a lead in Smithfield. His main concern seemed to be that he was not getting enough in his glass, and the only time anything went into a spittoon was when he swilled out his glass with water.
Never the diplomat when it comes to wine, there was the Chilean pinot noir of which CJ memorably declared “Well, if it was cheaper, you’d knock it back, but with no great pleasure.”
Then there was his encounter with an elegant French wine consultant, who had the show’s only first-rate claret on show, unfortunately not available for tasting. Cases of the stuff, however, were stored in her warehouse near Derby. “Ah, Derby” said CJ, “The heart of the wine-growing district…”
She was convinced, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that CJ was a wine-lover (or “lovair”), but frankly incredulous at his favoured £5 a bottle price point. (“Whair do you buy zese wines?” she snarled. “Tesco?” The retort “When flush” did not translate.
But then there was also the New Zealand gewurtztraminer, of which CJ commented, “It’s just a little petillante on the tongue, isn’t it?”
“That’s not how it’s meant to be…” said an affronted exhibitor. She then opened three bottles, each of which was as CJ had described, because it had… er… gone off.
The small producers did, however, offer some intriguing wines. Sainte Croix is basically a straightforward Corbieres, although described with the passion and complexity of a sonnet by an owner and winemaker whose goatee was almost as splendid as his wine.. He detailed everything from his grapes to his limestone terroir and then, as a reward for the way we withstood his cascade of winespeak, he drew from beneath the table La Parte des Anges, his extraordinary late-harvest red dessert wine, with the nose and sweetness of a port but the smoothness and purity of a basic red. A unique experience.
And the Domaine du Prieuré exhibited a lovely unoaked Gamay, described to us by a gentleman with the most spectacular moustache. CJ launched into a lengthy conversation in French with him which I couldn’t follow, but which was punctuated with much mutual chuckling. Perhaps they were discussing facial hair.
Still, having been drawn before to the shiraz/viognier duet, I discovered a wonderful, well-balanced example, The Auction Crossing, from South Africa. The viognier gives the shiraz such a perfumed element on the bouquet, and such a lift on the palate, that it creates a terrifically rich, peppery yet round and drinkable combination. I bought a brace for the cellar, on the basis, we agreed, that “If you punched that to the ground, it would get straight back up again.”
And frankly by the end of the day we were unable to taste anything which wasn’t a substantial red. CJ was becoming worryingly argumentative; his recent explosive encounter with a cork provoked both challenges to the manufacturer of a battery-operated corkscrew, and a vociferous debate at the stand of the natural cork producers. When he mistook the postcode on the Beaune stand for a vintage, it was clearly time to leave.
We had survived for most of the day on sweaty pocketed free samples of Davidstow cheddar; my mouth felt like used kitchen roll, and CJ was worried that he was unable to leer at the girls on the stands because his teeth were so black. That’s about what I made of The Wine Show. God knows what they made of us.

When I go drinking with PK, things can sometimes go awry.
Not this time, though. We were so on top of things (at the outset) that we both arrived at Olympia bang on opening time, clear-eyed, well-shaven, surprisingly articulate for eleven in the morning. I had a notebook and a pen. PK had a kind of poacher's backpack. We went in.
Six hours later, we emerged. Six hours is a very long time to spend walking around Olympia even if you like the place. By now, I had teeth the colour of a dirty collar and a light throbbing sensation behind the temples, which was not, I think, due to the quantity of wine drunk, but a by-product of the air-conditioning which was going apeshit keeping the smells of MasterChef Live, the Wine Show's co-star) down to an acceptable level. I also had a frisky bundle of business cards, notes, flyers and tasting guides, many of which I managed to drop down the back of a radiator when I got home, and with them, my memories.
Still. What fragments remain can be reassambled like this:
1) PK always got more drink than me. I don't want to sound one-note about this, and PK has already animadverted to it, but rigorous empirical comparisons proved repeatedly that PK's little taster glass invariably got more wine poured into it by the pro on the stand than mine did. Why would this be? Mainly, I think, because PK always got his glass in quicker than I did and with a kind of steely flourish, too, with the result that I only ever appeared in the field of vision of the pourer as a hesitant stooge who may or may not have been trying to leech some off PK's assertiveness off him. So in the course of six hours I got down the equivalent of no more than half a bottle of wine, while he must have done the full 75cl.
2) Gab. This may account for some of 1) above. PK has the gab, well, you can tell from the way he writes about wine - but this isn't just short-term booklearning that only works at home, away from any critical live encounter, no, he can do this stuff, on his feet, very lightly oiled, at length, in front of real wine producers. It was a side to him which I don't remember seeing before: length and resemblance to a lighter Côte du Rhône and you can really feel the Grenache coming through and tremendous fruits and floral nose. How could they tell that he was one of them even before pouring him his centimetre of wine? They simply could, and rewarded him accordingly. What, then? Well, I found myself trying to play catch-up, adopting these terrifying verbal postures in which I actually used the words cinnamon, strong finish, structure, chocolate overtones, jammy, impressive nose and half-a-dozen other shards of nonsense which I am now too ashamed to write down. I was indulged, of course I was, these people wanted to make a sale, even to a fuddled wreck such as myself, but the more I burbled away, the greater became my terror that I was going to say something so utterly pretentious and compromising that I would have to bow my head and immediately walk out of Olympia, past the hand-made Gin stand and the MasterChef gluttony arena, past the buffalo sausage purveyors and the nougat fettlers, and out into the night. I felt like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, his cover about to fall apart in deadly fragments.
3) Paperwork. This eventually consisted of (among other things) an entirely fatuous crib-sheet listing such typical Aroma and Flavour Characteristics as cucumber, wet leaf, leather, mango and rubber on one side, with quality conclusions on the other (poor, acceptable, good, very good and outstanding, since you ask); an open letter from Catchpole & Frogitt (Your own Private Wine Merchant); a card from Wine Essentials, reminding me of their (really very impressive) electric corkscrew, vide PK supra; a flyer for exquisite teas (how?); and my own tasting notes which amount to PK always gets more wine, Montepulciano charcoal (followed by a series of eager ticks, to indicate quality) sweaty cheese, posh French bird (PK, above) party stuff, or possibly porty stuff, and Xmas pudding, which may even be a reference to Xmas pudding, being sold somewhere else, on an entirely wine-free concession.
4) Oh, and Spanish winemakers Portia, who, I am delighted to report, had a neat little stand at which to get acquainted with some of their award-winning reds, as well as learn a bit about their dazzling new Norman Foster-designed winery. What can I say about Portia, except that their stuff is really, authentically, delicious (two ticks in my taster's notes), complex, sophisticated, justly gaining in prestige and respect wherever it is consumed, and the fact that I have actually won some Portia wine as a result of putting my name in the free draw, is neither here nor there?
Awry, indeed.

Sunday 7 November 2010

The Parcel Series Shiraz, Margaret River

When a wine writer of Victoria Moore’s stature says in the Telegraph that a shiraz is “rather fabulous value”, it’s like a spicy red rag to a bull like me. I’m always wary of descending to CJ’s pricepoint – see posts below for some of the vile territory into which I have been lured – but a bargain is surely a bargain. However, being Majestic, you have to buy two bottles in order to get a discount, so just to reassure myself, and avoid ending up with a second unopened, undrinkable bottle, I thought I should check out the Majestic website before plunging ahead.

The website told me a couple of interesting things; first, that The Parcel Series Shiraz is actually a blend with 7% Grenache. I wonder why they don’t say this on the label? After all, a Shiraz/Grenache blend suggests complexity, shifts it into the more intriguing territory of, say, the Shiraz/Viognier we wrote about. And there’s certainly room on the label, although its understated style does appeal to my refined sensibility. (CJ appears to feel robbed of some artistic and architectural experience when labels fail to illustrate in Victorian drypoint the chateau where it is bottled; however, as we shall see, in this case that brief would be somewhat challenging.)

But the second, ridiculous thing the website says is this: “The producer recommends drinking with braised pork belly with seared scallops and a white bean mousse.”

What an absurdly singular recommendation. It’s rather like a car manufacturer saying, “The maker recommends this car for driving along the A406, turning left on to the Finchley Road.”

I could understand if I was in a restaurant, if I had just ordered the said braised pork belly with seared scallops and a white bean mousse, and the waiter said, “May I recommend the Parcel Series Shiraz to go with that?” But unusually, my Affianced and I were not having that particular dish at home last Friday. We happened to be having a steak and kidney pudding. Sod it, I thought, caution to the wind – I’ll take my chances with The Parcel Series.

The label says it is “from the vineyards of Margaret River”. This might lead some to ask, “Who?” Is she the “producer” with the peculiarly sophisticated kitchen? Unfortunately, the correct question is “Where?” (I know CJ’s question is already “How much?” but we’ll come on to that.) This wine is grown in Margaret River, a renowned region of Australia, according to the back label. But it is actually bottled, not in Margaret River, not by any Ms River, nor indeed by any river at all, but by W1507 UK. A name, I’m sure, which infrequently troubles Hugh Johnson’s lips.

My World Wine Encyclopedia is surprisingly silent on the history of W1507 UK. Indeed, the only other product I could find related to it was a boxed shiraz at Asda. which, at £10 for 225ml, or £3.11 a bottle, is clearly more in CJ’s territory than mine. Or for that matter Hugh Johnson’s.

So this “parcel” of wine – what a lovely, romantic euphemism – is bulk-imported and bottled here. Not mis en bouteille au chateau, then. Perhaps the subsequent process was not conducive to the label illustrator’s art. But “parcel” sounds so much more attractive than “tank”, doesn’t it?

The other thing they have on the back label is this bizarre graphic (above), barring a lady, who happens to be pregnant, drinking out of a beer glass. Now, I am acutely aware of CJ’s concerns about drinking receptacles, but if this is a campaign to stop people swilling fine wine out of pint mugs, I’m all for it.

Sadly, I suspect that this is actually some kind of campaign to stop those who are pregnant from drinking. Well, blame it on my gender if you must, but like half the population, this does not actually trouble me. What about those drink-related concerns which do? Why not put a graphic of a car on here instead, with a line through it, to bar drink-driving? A raddled looking kidney, warning against overindulgence? Or barring an off-balance, argumentative-looking chap wielding a bottle in a threatening manner?

Fortunately however, I am not barred from drinking The Parcel Series. So I can reveal that, even without the ideal food, this is really a very decent wine. It’s got a rich, blackberry nose, and a full-bodied, slightly spicy and aromatic flavour – but not too heavy; clean, not cloying. It doesn’t have the weight of so much New World shiraz. Yes, it’s predominantly single note, like any varietal, but am I fooling myself into thinking the fruitiness of the Grenache is adding something interesting? And it’s reduced from £7.49 to £5.99 when you buy two bottles.

For six quid (CJ!!) this is an ideal kitchen wine, which would accompany an enormous range of food, way beyond the single dish recommended by the producers. Indeed, I finished off the bottle on the second night with a chicken, chorizo and chickpea combination. I’m not saying it was the ideal match of food and wine – I’m just bragging about our cooking.

And eschewed as it must be by pregnant women, there will clearly be enough to go round the drunk drivers, alcoholics and belligerent amongst us all.


Friday 5 November 2010


This news just in: throw away that Paris goblet (see 15 September) and that crystal toilet bowl (see 21 September) so beloved of PK. The answer to all your drinking needs is (of course!) the Duralex Picardie range of glassware. Why has it taken me so long to acquire a pack of these miraculous tumblers? Was it some residual shame at those years of schoolboy smuttiness (Durex, ha ha, we had thousands of things in the school dining hall)? Was it lack of opportunity? Was it simple laziness?

Almost certainly the last. But when I found a Picardie 6-pack in a surprisingly snotty little shop in town, I knew that Destiny had sounded its trumpet and I had to get my fix of these stupendous vessels. So I bought an inital half-dozen, and the effect is every bit as magical as I'd anticipated. Any beverage tastes better - orange juice, tapwater, whisky - while wines of all complexions are at last given that proper stage on which to express themselves.

The secret of Duralex's success? It's a tripartite strategy. 1) The faceted shape of the glass ensures plenty of flattish surfaces to press your sweating fingers against, thus ensuring a firm, steady, comforting grip at all times 2) The 16 cl version holds just the right amount for this writer, a couple of good swigs or four decorous sips before needing a refill 3) It is virtually unbreakable, so if you chance to put it woozily too close to edge of the table, or just let go of the thing altogether, no harm done. Thus it penetrates the essence of the relationship between glass and drinker, which demands reassurance: the drink is precious, the pleasure is momentary and contingent, the dignity of the drinker is vulnerable, the situation is highly charged. The glass has to be not only an extension of one's senses, but at the same time provide confirmation of a differentiated, tangible reality standing apart from human uncertainties. The Picardie is as close to perfect as I can imagine and once again, the French (cf the cubi) have found the answer to a question we English are scarcely aware of.

In other news: the notoriety of Sediment has grown to the extent that when we had some people over for supper, one of them brought a bottle of wine whose identity had been concealed by a thick sheet of paper, and invited me as a so-called wine blogger to make an intelligent guess at its provenance. I stabbed wildly at South America, turned out it was Italy: an extremely suave red called Le Volte, whose terrifying purchase price our guest would not reveal. Anyway, what did he expect? My ignorance is fathomless, and growing magically deeper with time.

And finally: I served up some of that Azzuriz stuff that PK critiqued (see 6 July) largely as the result of this same fathomless ignorance. I saw it in the supermarket, was dully hypnotised by it until I remembered that PK had done a number on it, but was quite unable to remember whether he'd liked it or not. Paid over the odds, dished the stuff up, strong chemical blast to the back of the throat, not unpleasant, but not worth £8, not by a mile. What a mug.


Thursday 28 October 2010

Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz/Viognier 2007 Again

So I did like I was told (see PK's thunderous hint at the start of his post for 19 October). I blundered round to the nearest Oddbins, but, unlike PK, did not engage the guy behind the counter in half an hour of witty banter, but merely walked straight across the floor to where this insanely priced bottle stood on a shelf, waiting for me, looking as if it knew I was about to grab it and pay £17.99 for it. I can’t think about the price without having to blink away tears, but there it is.

Three things immediately wrong with this multinational snake oil: no screw cap; tiresomely tasteful label (where is the dry point of a château? where the airbrushed grapes? the gold medal for hygiene, Antwerp?); more than three times the correct price of a bottle of red wine. Quite a lot more, very nearly the price of a fourth bottle.

I took it home, cradling the smug, loathsome thing like a changeling and then had to find a glass big enough to give it lebensraum. Well, we’ve been down this rocky road before (see the post for 15 September) so after ten minutes of poking around I finally found a Christening glass which had been given to no. 2 son and it was about the size and shape of a town-crier’s bell, so I pronounced it good. No chance, as PK would have it, of tipping the grog into the old family crystal wine decanter first, because we don’t have one. We have got an elderly thick-walled carafe which used to hold cheap Californian biddy, but it’s been used as a flower vase for the last ten years so I ruled it out. I could have taught my millionaire’s wine a lesson by pouring it into my now-empty cubi (see 12 October) but even I could see that would have been both childish and vindictive.

And then what? The cork broke. My trusty Screwpull, which has never failed in six years, got jammed in Terlato & Chapoutier’s cork and the cork started to split and by the time I’d dragged the thing out into the open (like pulling a sack of sand across a ploughed field) there was cork everywhere, over the table, an acne of cork bits floating in my bell-shaped glass. I went to get my taster’s notes (including a précis of PK’s verbal fondlings - Cedary but creamy; it sings off the back of the palate; spicy warmth) and check on the accompanying food (a pain in its own right: what do you eat with such a precious commodity? Roast swan? A gazelle?) but I was fulminating all the time. No screw cap, you see. None of that bracing downwind-of-a-petrol-refinery anticipation you get when you open a cheap bottle. Just ten minutes of anguished fury. At these prices I think I’m entitled to expect at the very least, a dependable cork. I suppose it would be expecting too much for them to send me a replacement.

And then the drink itself. My own tasting notes (after Cork fell to bits) struggle to generate enthusiasm, resorting to such joke appreciations as Begins with a peppery flourish and caramel overtones before lapsing into Searches out areas of the tongue (underside, edges) you don’t normally pay attention to and then down, down, into good quality soap, then slightly sinister until at last, dull existential throb. I couldn’t finish the bottle, no matter how hard I tried. It just filled me with woozy, oppressed, overstuffed gloom. It was like thin treacle poured over a flagstone floor. What is it with this terrible stuff? What about singing off the palate? I had to put a stopper in it (see picture) and deal it the death blow the following day.

Questions will no doubt be raised. Not least by me, who, after the ordeal was over, could not get the thought out of his head that one, highly provocative, bottle of Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz/Viognier costs the same as a brace of cinema tickets. Or three paperback books. Or two whole bottles of Tesco’s value whisky - a drink which, I can attest, will provide hours, if not days, of mellowing distraction. But I’d better stop there. I’m getting upset again.


Tuesday 19 October 2010

Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz/Viognier 2007

When you have sunk to the bottom, you can only go up. Even Sediment, when agitated or disturbed, will rise. In a bid to remind my palate, not to mention CJ, of what wine is all about – and having sunk to the depths of the cheapest wine I have ever knowingly drunk – I decided to find a good, complex bottle of wine which I might actually enjoy. An interesting wine.
As an aide-memoire to what decent wine is about, I’ve been re-reading Simon Hoggart’s book Life’s too short to drink bad wine. Well, not on the Sediment blog, it’s not, old chum. Not my life, anyway.
But in between making me obscenely jealous of the wines he has tasted, Hoggart also offers advice, including the following: “If you have an independent merchant near you,” he writes, “or a good well-run branch of a chain – the sort that trains its staff and keeps them – make friends.”
Now, from my parents to my business partner, people throughout my life have exhorted me to “make friends”, usually with the complete failure resulting in a sandpit fight. Or its adult equivalent.
Nor can I say that I am “friends” with any other shopkeepers. I have been to our local paint shop several times, but I am still treated as a stranger. Mind you, I have never gone in with what I suspect might be a memorable request for "an interesting paint"...
Nevertheless, I thought I would try out Simon Hoggart’s principle in order to purchase a wine which, in both senses, was not bad. So I entered my local branch of Oddbins with the lazy gait of the flaneur who has nowhere better to be, and an ingratiating grin.
The assistant certainly looked as if he was trained – unlike the staff in my cornershop, he had clearly been taught that his job description was best fulfilled behind the counter, and not outside having a smoke. Nor was he glumly perusing his P45. ("Ah no mate, interesting wine comes in next week - but I'm afraid I'm off to work up the road, in the paint shop...") All systems go, then.
I explained that I was looking for something of a treat, something complex I could drink by itself. He asked what kind of thing I liked, and I said I really liked old clarets with a backbone, like St Estephes. He immediately offered me a 2002 Medoc, which frankly smacked of the obvious rather than the interesting. Then he proposed a Tuscan, a much more stimulating idea.
I said “Hmm…??” in a quizzical manner, meant to suggest, “Perhaps you have something even more interesting hidden away for your friends?”. Clearly this was misinterpreted as “Can I spend a little more?” It led to the offer of an extremely expensive mature Rioja.
It was actually me who suggested the Terlato & Capoutier Shiraz/Viognier. I had seen this mentioned on an American website, as one of the best value wines of the year. (Not cheapest, but best value, a distinction lost on certain wine writers.) And I was intrigued by whether comfortable Australian Shiraz had been lifted into something a bit more complex by a great French winemaker.
“Ah, now that is an interesting wine,” he agreed. He went on to say that it was an unoaked Shiraz, which meant you could drink it younger, and that the Viognier added primarily to the nose.
Reasonable guidance - but what makes this wine interesting to me is the union between one of the great old winemaking names of the Rhone, and an enthusiast from the New World. Like that duet between Bing Crosby and David Bowie. (Well, that was a bit ropey, actually, but you get my point.) What happens when the traditional skills of France meet the modern, affordable produce of Australia?
He suggested opening it an hour before drinking – and added that “opening” really meant pouring it into something like a glass, with greater surface area. All of which was extremely good advice.
As he wished me an enjoyable evening, I liked to think that our exchange had gone beyond the merely fiscal. I couldn’t say he’d become my friend – but perhaps, and who can blame him, he was a little wary of the unctuous grin.
The wine itself was absolutely delicious, a description I am thrilled to be able to employ within the Sediment blog. First I gave it an hour in a claret decanter. The nose is cedary but creamy, and the wine has the richness, the spicy warmth of a Cote-Rotie; but with the weight reduced by the absence of oak, and the little lift of the Viognier (a grape I associate with appley white wines), it just sings off the back of the palate. There’s a lighter, fruity note of summer about it, rather than the autumn and winter I associate with Shiraz. If I have any criticism, it’s that the absence of the oak meant I missed having something to tether the wine down, and make it a slower drink – but perhaps that’s my justification (if any were needed) for polishing off the bottle in a single session.
This was everything I wanted – a reminder of how enjoyable wine can be, and a genuinely interesting treat. And as to my burgeoning friendship with the chap in Oddbins, I will try and remember to report if I go back whether he remembers me, or ushers me outside to avoid upsetting other customers.

Tuesday 12 October 2010


I have seen the future and it comes in a five-litre plastic flagon, filled by a man using a petrol pump.

This is serious. There we were (still) down in the Ventoux, and it was Saturday morning, and what do the locals do on a Saturday morning in that part of the world but drive to their friendly neighbourhood cave to stock up for the weekend? So we did that, only instead of the grim trudge that accompanies a trip to (say) Majestic Wine - the trolley squeaking across the chill concrete, the haggard bankers & lawyers bracing themselves for that next dinner-party - at Terraventoux we found a barely-supressed excitement, a mood both carefree and impossibly eager.

Why? Because of this man with the pump. Don't be put off - there was nothing dubious or furtive or down-at-heel about the cave or the pump, or, indeed, the man. In fact the place was exemplary in its cleanliness, it bourgeois dignity. High-ceilinged, thronged with bottles of red and white (their take on the local Ventoux variety), panelled with sober brown woodwork, somewhere in atmosphere between a gentleman's smoking room and a sauna, everything about it said diginity and composure. But then there were these huge wooden vats, lined up against a wall, each with its own petrol pump. And, turn and turn about, with a pair of Frenchmen on the end of the pump hose, one pouring the wine, the other standing contentedly over his plastic flagon like a dog-owner giving his pet a treat.

Because the majority of punters were arriving with their own flagons for a refill. Costing €2 and holding five litres, these cubis (as they are known) also come with a plastic tap and a convenient carry handle, and will last a lifetime, or a year at least. The booze that flows in? The same as the stuff being sold, bottled and labelled, for €5 a bottle and rising, on the other side of the cave. How much do you pay for the plastic flagon version? A truly magical €1.35 a litre, plus TVA (or VAT as we perversely name it). That is not a typographical error: €1.35 a litre, or €6.75 the flagon. Of wine which, I can proudly report, is light, refreshing, stylish, well-balanced, and which slips down so readily it's almost impossible not to drink at any time of the day or night. I can't tell you how excited I was, watching my own cubi bubble up with the good stuff, knowing that I was now part of a great and profoundly civilizing ritual; and that I could remain very slightly drunk for as long as I wanted.

The only snag is the keeping. Lots of French customers were buying this same delicious wine in BIBs (i.e. Bag-In-Boxes) which keep the grog in a collapsible plastic vacuum bag so that it doesn't spoil over time through contact with the air. Not possible of course in a rigid cubi. So the intelligent drinker takes his cubi home and straightaway decants most of its contents into old wine bottles which he then corks up again, thus minimising the air/spoilage interface.

I fully made a mental note to do this as I watched my cubi fill, but, once back at base, was so distracted by the incredible and unfamiliar bounty now sitting in my kitchen that I forgot to do any such thing until I was at least half-way through the flagon.

Opinions are mixed as to how long flagon grog can be expected to keep, given considerate treatment as opposed to damp-palmed bibulous neglect. A month to six weeks was a rough consensus. Suddenly and belatedly waking up to this problem, I realised that I had left it too late to decant and that the only thing to do was to drink with steady and increasing efficiency through the remaining wine before it had a chance to go off. This I am continuing to do, and although my Terra Ventoux is suffering a bit, it gamely refuses to die on me. Frankly, at €1.35 +TVA a litre, I would drink it even if it tasted like hair restorer. Every palatable sip between now and that state is a miraculous bonus.


Monday 4 October 2010

Vino de Mesa, Sainsbury's Basic

How attractive this wine looks, in its Café de Flore carafe. It is as if I am about to enjoy a drink at the legendary café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Where Sartre and Camus lingered, and where the smallest, cheapest goblet of Brouilly costs €7.50.

If only. My location is actually not Saint-Germain de Pres. The contents of the carafe are actually Spanish. The entire bottle actually cost £2.68. And whether it is actually wine, in any basic definition of the term, is something we need to discuss. In fact, we need to discuss the definition of the term “basic”.

For this is Basics red wine, from Sainsbury’s. Like most supermarkets, this is the range where they claim to provide goods of acceptable quality for the lowest price. And the latter part of that claim is pretty unassailable. At £2.68 a bottle, this is the cheapest wine I have ever knowingly drunk.

But what is “basic” wine? And why am I disguising it in a Café de Flore carafe? We are about to find out…

Basics products (“cuttings costs, not corners”) carry jaunty little explanations of their “basic” nature. Lemons, for instance, are “no lookers, great juicers”. In this case, it is “wine for the kitchen, not the cellar”. Note “kitchen” – not “dining room”, “lounge” or even, for the residentially challenged, “supper table”. Must a wine provoke a whole, socially confusing route around the potential layout of our accommodation?

Or perhaps the idea of keeping it in the kitchen, or disguising its appearance elsewhere in the house, is an acknowledgment of the hideousness of the label, the colour and graphics of which would not happily co-exist with any table setting outside of a cartoon.

There is always a line of cynical thinking, and I am always drawn to it. The line of cynical thinking says that the lurid packaging of value ranges, whether Morrison’s Tesco or Sainsbury’s, is actually designed so that people feel embarrassed checking out an entire basketful. It’s a loud declaration of poverty to everyone else in the supermarket queue – so that even people who really want to buy a week’s worth of Basics feel embarrassed to do so. Supermarkets can therefore offer cheap products, improving both their image and their relative price rankings, while knowing full well that people will top their basket up with more expensive items.

So in the “dining room”, if you have one, this label would immediately launch a whole set of assumptions which might prejudice an evening’s conviviality, from the likely quality of the wine to the parsimoniousness of the host and the dubiousness of any accompanying food. You don’t catch many glimpses of this label on Come Dine With Me.

Indeed, how far would you have read in this post if it had been topped with a picture of that hideous label? Have we all made certain assumptions already?

So, for all those reasons, I decanted the wine into my lovely Café de Flore carafe. This would allow the wine to breathe, hopefully improving its flavour. It would avoid ribald comments from the rest of the household. And it might help me to forget the provenance of the wine and approach it with an open mind.

Basic wine comes, it seems from Spain – hence vino de mesa. Not wine from romantic-sounding areas with tabletop mountains like Algar de Mesa; no, here mesa really does mean “table”, as in table wine. Still, at least we have moved from the kitchen to the table…

Sainsbury’s themselves describe it as being “An easy-drinking table wine with light red-fruit flavours". Now, CJ and I seem to be alone in bringing into the vocabulary of wine description terms such as “challenging”, “sweaty” and “fight-inducing”. Nevertheless, I always find this “easy-drinking” notion intriguing – what else should wine be? Few cheap wines honestly describe themselves as “difficult to swallow”.

In the glass, this has an aroma I can only describe as burnt rubber, with its familiar catch in the nostrils, and suggestion of impending disaster.

But it has virtually no flavour whatsoever, beyond a vague taste of fruit-gums, possibly, but not necessarily, the red ones. As it opens up, a fragrance emerges which is reminiscent of alcohol and wet carpet, like the aftermath of a student party; but still no flavour, until the tang of alcohol finally itself forces its way through and begins to provoke a mild nausea. And a fast-impending headache.

I now understand both of the notions which eluded me. “Easy-drinking” means it is like swallowing saliva – a reflex action, virtually unnoticed, and certainly not troubling your palate. “Basic” means it echos the most fundamental aspects of wine which Messrs Sainsbury can find, viz, it is red, it is liquid and it is alcoholic. Beyond that, the relationship between this and wine is debatable.

There are wines with ironic labels like Old Git which can provoke a chuckle from your dinner guests. Sainsbury’s Basic does away with any need for a wine boldly labelled Cheap Bastard. It might provoke a chuckle. Or it might lead to an exodus, before any similarly “basic” food arrives…


Thursday 30 September 2010

Cremant de Limoux Brut, LIDL (Carpentras)

A trip to France (the Ventoux region, hence Carpentras) and where did we end up? Lidl. Or, as they put it at the entrance to the Carpentras branch of this pan-European dimestore, L'Idéal c'est Lidl! There were caves everywhere around us, vignobles offering on-site dégustation, the whole oenophile experience, obviously, but equally obviously, Lidl required no finding (we were just passing by) and had excellent parking facilities. And, God knows, we could have at the same time picked up ten metres of hosepipe or a welder's mask, the way one is tempted to in Lidl: which you would find difficult (I'm presuming) in the retail outlets of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Anyway, we bought this Cremant de Limoux and enjoyed it with our friends on their heartbreakingly beautiful south-west-facing depth-of-the-countryside terrace, along with a knot of their French neighbours, and it tasted fine. I forget how much it cost (between €5 - €10) but it was fizzy and agreeable and even better if you bunged in some Crème de Cassis or that noix stuff to generate diversity. Can I find it back here in England? No. But three far more vital things emerged from the encounter:

1) The French now drink in moderation. The four French persons there (two men, two women) played up to their national stereotype by talking 75% of the time about food, at least as far as I understood the conversation, which shot past me like jets of steam; but they failed to consume anything more than a couple of self-denying glasses each before disappearing to have their supper. What happened to the long, slow, mature, persistent tippling that one used to associate with the French, particularly in rural areas where ouvriers used to warm up with a brandy at elevenses and go from there? What happened to the light alcoholic haze? Well, I was told, very earnestly, that the French Police now have the power to stop and breathalyse drivers without needing any special provocation. As a consequence, those motorists who used to blunder down the long, unlit country lanes, wine seeping out of their ears after a good meal or a good conversation, have got a lot more cautious. And in Paris, they're too busy earning money, to get lit up. There you go.

2) The French don't smoke any more while they drink. This is too sad for words. I remember the Frogs smoking while driving, smoking while eating, smoking while working, smoking while talking (especially), having a quick cig in between cigs as a purely parenthetical kind of smoking, smoking in the bath, smoking around small children and domestic pets, smoking en plein air and in absolutely tiny and apparently unventilated lifts. I can still remember being taken (when young) to a restaurant in Paris and being kippered in fag smoke from the moment we entered (it was a low-ceilinged basement, which certainly helped trap the pall) to the moment we left, and even then thinking this is the way to go. Our host (immensely civilised Parisian lawyer) not only smoked between courses, but between mouthfuls, which required some dexterity on his part. So now, when not a single Frog lights up while on a social call on account of even the French submitting to the New World Smoking Dispensation, not only do I feel mutely cheated out of the opportunity to ponce a gasper for my own enjoyment (not that I smoke, of course); I mourn the way yet another once-actual pleasure has sidled off into the murky indefensible netherworld of mere nostalgia. Drinking a glass of wine and enjoying a quiet cig: a caesura in time, as Richard Klein very nearly put it in Cigarettes Are Sublime. And he was very nearly right.

3) I bought a whopping great plastic flagon of red wine with a tap. Not from Lidl. Of which more. When I've had a chance to drink some of it.