Sunday 15 August 2010

Hazy View Chenin Blanc

CJ is currently heading somewhere in the West Country; his consumption may not falter, but his contribution will, so I am stepping in with this further tale of my own.

My local Mace (slogan: Whenever, whatever) is a typical convenience store, run by personnel whose mobile telephone calls occupy them far more than any notions of customer service. On the railings outside is a badly handwritten sign, advertising a “specious airey basemet” to let (sic, sic and, I’m afraid, sic again). This “basemet” would be “suitable for many uses”, although Younger Son, peering over the railings, seems to think that its suitability would mostly involve either Josef Fritzl or the producers of Saw.

They say life is too short to drink cheap wine; not on the Sediment blog. Tonight it is convenience, rather than curiosity, poverty or perversity, which has driven me to the Mace for wine. I am cooking Nigel Slater’s excellent recipe for chicken with basil and lemon. And it requires white wine – which on a Sunday evening means a visit to Mace. And whatever else the “basemet” is being used for, it is clearly not a wine cellar.

CJ and I refuse to succumb to the likes of Echo Falls, Turning Leaf, Jacob’s Creek et al, the cheap brands which clutter the shelves of wine at Mace and elsewhere with their dependable blandness, like episodes of some New World soap opera where no-one is ever either rich or poor.

But if not excitement, Mace does at least provide a degree of comedy on its shelves. Which self-respecting French chateau makes a wine which actually says “claret” on the label? In case of confusion, that’s “Claret from Bordeaux”, no less?

Another day, perhaps; for amongst the more predictable offerings I spot my purchase – Hazy View, a Chenin Blanc from South Africa. At £6.49 a bottle, there will be some (CJ) who think that a little steep for a bottle of South African white from a convenience store. But needs must, there’s a chicken dish waiting, and Messrs Gallo are not getting my hard-earned, thank you very much.

I think it’s always important to taste wine before you cook with it. This has nothing to do with the taste of the wine – it just numbs the fear of cooking.

So I open up the Hazy View, and pour myself a cook’s glass. And I realise that this is actually a very, very enjoyable chenin blanc – peachy, crisp, utterly drinkable. It’s fragrant, light but flavoursome. What is going on here?

I quickly check it out online, just to reassure myself that my tastebuds have not been cauterised by too much Sediment fodder. And I find that I am not alone in my regard for Hazy View Chenin Blanc. It is on the wine list of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, no less – at £21 a bottle.

Now, I know you cannot compare restaurant prices with other prices. But still, a wine for which the connoisseurs of the ROH will pay £21 – and I’ve just picked it up for £6.49 round at the Mace. Well spotted or what? Self-congratulation all round, eh? Except…

Except that I am now faced with an awful dilemma. The recipe, for four people, requires two glasses of wine. If I had brought up from my extensive cellar (hem, hem) a bottle of white wine worth £21, there is no way I would put two glasses of it into Nigel Slater’s recipe. Let alone “watch it bubble for a minute”.

But I have no choice. I remind myself that this is a bottle from Mace, and that two glasses have cost me about £2.50. (The fact they would have been £11 at the ROH is neither here nor there. Stop it.) I pour it in. And, while I “watch it bubble for a minute” (sob), I wonder – have I found a £21 bottle of wine for a third of the price, and cooked one of the most expensive chicken dishes ever? Or cooked with wine that cost £6.49 from the convenience store, and enjoyed drinking a bargain?

In the end, only one thing really matters; I get to drink the rest of this completely delicious wine myself. Because I am “just finishing off that cheap bottle I got to cook with from the Mace…”


Wednesday 4 August 2010

La Vieille Fontaine White, Vin de Pays de Gers 2009

Cheap wine is an inverse gamble. In most forms of gambling, the greater your outlay, the greater your gamble. With wine, the opposite is true. Spend a tenner on a bottle of wine, and you approach it with eager curiosity and cautious optimism. Spend £2.99, and that is replaced with fear and trepidation.

A couple of things can alleviate that. First, the merchant. Most connoisseurs will tell you that the name of a good wine merchant can be an imprimatur of quality. The very term “wine merchant” alone would suggest you’re buying from a specialist. Unfortunately, the terms which occur more frequently in Sediment purchasing are “off-licence”, “supermarket”, and “that place on the corner and can you pick up some Pringles while you’re there”.

And then there are reviews. Perhaps not surprisingly, you don’t get many positive reviews of wines under three quid. So, when the Observer recommends a bottle for £2.99, an absurd optimism takes over.

Last Sunday (August 1), I spotted this in my Observer supplement: “This ridiculously cheap French number from Tesco is not only drinkable but has a fair bit of charm too. It’s light and fresh, with a nice mix of floral and citrus flavours.” Of course, amongst that expressive description, it was the words “ridiculously cheap” which caught my eye, especially in an unusual juxtaposition with the word “drinkable”.

The writer was David Williams, deputy editor of The World of Fine Wine, a wonderful looking magazine in whose rarefied world I would love to sup. Each issue costs £20. So when he recommends a wine from Tesco which costs £2.99, it’s barely hours before I’m excitedly clutching a bottle.

The whole package has a reassuring air of authenticity – the name, the label design…and even a cork. Not a real cork, of course, just one of those plastic versions, but at least you get to use a corkscrew and persuade yourself that this is a proper bottle of wine.

And upon first opening, the wine did indeed live up to all of Mr Williams’ adjectives.

But I do wonder if Mr Williams encountered this wine in the swill n’spit of a tasting. For, as I made my steady way through the bottle, the flavours gradually collapsed. “Light” became syrupy; “floral” became undergrowth; and “citrus” deteriorated into a vague clenching at the back of the palate. In the time it took me to down the lot, things went from the sylvan to the frankly vegetable.

Of course it is “ridiculously cheap”, and most people would say there is hardly room for complaint here. Ditto “drinkable”, no mean achievement in itself at £2.99. The trick, presumably, is to either share it out amongst half a dozen people, so they all knock it back before it deteriorates, or just swill the lot yourself as quickly as possible. But good white wine does, actually, hold its flavour throughout the bottle. Only, in the World of Fine Wine, I can’t even read about Montrachet for £2.99…


Monday 2 August 2010

Oddbins Obikwa Rosé/Pinotage

The pinkness of pink: sunset over Hounslow; rhubarb; lips and gums; a beetroot sandwich; tail lights in the rain; dentist's mouthwash; cooked prawns; acid in universal indicator; bubblegum; Lady Penelope's car; scar tissue; candyfloss; a sticking plaster; rare roast beef; a flamingo; porphyry.

There's something inauthentic about pink, something sinister and unnatural. Why the hell did I decide I preferred it to white? Oh, because every time I went near a white wine (see the post for 19 July) my teeth started to hurt and I suffered a mild occipital neuralgia. It seemed, anyway. And having put up with that for a while, I thought, the rosé, that's the one, it's like a white, but without that anarchic, disinfectant threat lingering in every glass: because as we all know, the nearer a wine gets to being a red, the easier it is to keep down.

And it works, in a very real sense, for a while, until some law of diminishing returns sets in, or the patient's physiology starts to change and what was once tolerable turns out to be almost as much of a minefield as the thing it was supposed to replace, and yes, I'm looking at you, Oddbins' very own Obikwa Rosé (£4.99 on special offer at the time) with a cartoon ostrich on the front of the bottle and a label the colour of a bloodshot eyeball, creating an area of hotly vibrant visual interference right at the point where you grip the bottle with so much expectation, that's not what we want at the end of a long day -

And even the Wife noticed, once I'd cranked off the screw cap (accompanied by the faintest of hisses), that the air had changed and there was a shimmering quality to it, like a gas leak. I took a few tearful sips and thought that maybe my Obikwa needed to be colder. It had a physical presence at the table, like a large sweaty, pink, and yet quite cold, man. I wondered if leaving it in the fridge to get it even more frigid would be a smart move, whether that would lessen the mood of intimidation. Or freeze it until it was like the outer coating of a Mivvi - it was colourful enough, to pass muster as a lolly, really freakishly pink. What do I know about rosés anyway? Candyfloss and flamingos?

So I drank a bit, wiped my eyes and blew my nose, and stuck the bottle back in the fridge, where it remained until...

Day Two: out it came again. Slight phosphorescence, no audible hiss when the cap came off, cartoon ostrich still in place, clearly the wine couldn't dissolve glass, not at low temperatures anyway. And in a long moment of distraction, I necked the rest of it without even noticing. And that was it. The threat disposed of. Didn't even get a headache/blurred vision/sense of overwhelming cosmic doom, such as one normally experiences as a result of over-swift imbibition.

What do we learn from this? Was Day One just an abreaction to the colour? Is it the deviant appearance of rosé that presents its own challenge, particularly one as luminescent as this, which sits on the table wearing its own high-visibility workman's jacket? Or does it just need 24 hours to breathe? Or if I wore dark glasses? Or drank with the lights off? Or do I need 24 hours to breathe?