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.


Tuesday 21 September 2010

Le Fontegnac, Vin de Bordeaux

This post is something of a riposte, following CJ’s remarks about wineglasses. What may have seemed to many like a casual, passing reference to ‘human-head-sized wineglasses with foot-long stems that smart people drink from nowadays’ is clearly a reference to my fabulous Riedel Sommeliers Bordeaux Grand Cru glass.

This magnificent example of the glassmakers art (see picture) is, indeed, 5.5 times the size of CJ’s puny Paris goblet. It is not, however, the size of a human head. Well, maybe a baby human. Or an adult mango.

However, I can do no better than quote from Riedel themselves: “This glass, first created in 1959, is not a design gimmick but a precision instrument, developed to highlight the unique characteristics of the great wines of Bordeaux. The large bowl (capacity 30 oz) brings out the full depth of contemporary wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.”

(And it will not get “trashed in the dishwasher”, because it won’t fit into the dishwasher.)

Given CJ’s last post, I simply had to compare it with his wretched little Paris goblet, that hideous little tennis ball of a glass condemned by George Reidel himself as “the enemy of wine”. A glass too thick and too small to enhance the flavour, too shallow and open to enhance the bouquet, and too mimsy to suggest generosity. Favourite of the hired caterer and the student party – and almost impossible to purchase nowadays.

(I kid you not; as I travelled downmarket, from John Lewis via Robert Dyas to Poundland, I still found it impossible to buy a Paris goblet. Eventually, Select and Save of Hammersmith offered me 6 for £3.99; one is in the picture above, and if anyone wants the other 5…)

You will see from the photo that the Riedel glass is considerably larger. 5.5 times larger, in fact. Along with the enhanced enjoyment of my Bordeaux. I think I did imagine that, seated at the head of the table with my tasting glass, I would immediately appear a knowledgeable connoisseur and masterful seigneur.

However, the glass may also convey the impression that I am intending to drink around 5.5 times as much as everybody else. Or to drink 5.5 times faster. Or I may just look a bit of a knob, sitting at the head of the table with a glass the size of a coconut.

Anyway, this being Sediment, I cannot, as Riedel suggests showcase “majestically structured red wines in all their complexity and finesse.” Frankly, they are strangers to this blog. But in all fairness to this “precision instrument”, I thought I had to find something which exhibited at least one of the “unique characteristics of Bordeaux.” Which Le Fontegnac, £3.99 at Sainsburys, clearly does. It comes from Bordeaux.

Something told me, however, that this was not going to have the sustenance of such great Bordeaux as 1947, 1961 or 1982. That something was, in fact, the back of the label., It says without a hint of shame, “It is recommended that this wine be consumed within 6 months of purchase.”

So, one for the Paris goblet, then. An aroma of wood – not oak, which could be promising, but wood as in Colliers – a dank, dark kind of scent. Then a shallow, fruity flavour, climaxing with palate-clenching tannins. Altogether reminiscent in my mouth of a leaking biro.

Not, I imagine, the kind of description usually employed by enthusiastic sommeliers. Interestingly, the bouquet in their Riedel glass was immediately enhanced, presumably because the wine had room to breathe. (Room? It’s got an entire apartment.)

But this was a bad thing. M. Riedel talks of his glass “unpacking the various layers of bouquet and delivering a full spectrum of aromas”. I could feel my nasal hairs cringing.

When it came to taste, again I have to say that the wine was, marginally, improved; less punishing on the palate. But that was probably because, given the surface area of a CD, it could evaporate faster. The aftertaste was just as acrid.

Where does this leave us regarding CJ and his dodgy wine/decent glass equation? Well, like an actor in a spotlight, a glass precision engineered to highlight the quality of a wine will highlight poor quality too. And if I have got to suffer the indignity of drinking wine at £3.99 a bottle, I am not simultaneously risking ridicule by cradling it in a glass the size of a small bucket.


Wednesday 15 September 2010


Three quid. That's what it cost. For a complete, 75cl bottle, entirely filled with red wine. Three quid. It spoke to me at ASDA, not a place I normally find myself in, but I had to get some really cheap pillows and I saw this stuff and the wino in me couldn't take his eyes off it, so I grabbed two bottles, tucked the pillows under my oxter and lumbered off to the check-out looking (quite plainly) as if I were off in search of a park bench, a rain-free day and a homeless friend.

Then I had qualms once I got home with my pauper's treasure. Three quid is not much for anything. The price of a Saturday Guardian is starting to nudge that; likewise a chocolate brownie at a motorway services; a packet of shoe insoles is probably a bit more, a discount CD bought on impulse during a visit to a rotting British seaside resort, maybe a bit less... I mean, three quid is next to nothing. Did I really want to drink this stuff? Anyway, I brooded on it for a bit until I remembered a discussion I'd had with PK.

The gist of which was that he couldn't understand why anyone would dishonour a good wine by serving it in a cheap wine glass; whereas I didn't much care either way, the old Paris goblet having numerous virtues, including near-unbreakability, a comforting fit in the hand, good mouthful-to-contents ratio. But he went on about a good big glass being necessary to let the grog breathe and warm up and open out and tell its story to the drinker. So I invoked a reverse rationale: arguing to myself that a dodgy wine, if served in a decent glass, will be framed so effectively by its container that it'll taste like the Ribena of the gods.

Do we have any of those human-head-sized wineglasses with foot-long stems that smart people drink from nowadays? Of course not. If we ever did have them, they got broken long ago, trashed in the dishwasher or snapped carelessly in two by my delinquent fingers. But I poked around in a forgotten kitchen cupboard and what did I find but some pleasingly weighty Edwardian-looking things in cut glass or crystal, which I can only assume were given to us by someone because we quite obviously neither could nor would buy objects such as these, not in this lifetime.

So I poured ASDA into one of these Mrs. Keppel glasses, while using a regulation Utility goblet as a control (see illustration), let it settle/breathe/decompose for a few minutes, and took a swig.

My standards (see previous posts, and indeed this post) are lamentably low, but I have to say that even served in gleaming cut glass in a well-lit and temperate room, ASDA's Carricci was pretty challenging. Once I'd uncrossed my eyes and taken a reference sip from the Paris goblet - just in case the fancy glass had recently been washed in bleach or had a dead spider in the bottom - I decided that it tasted, essentially, of suede. It was disappointing. It was disappointing because I'd convinced myself that a £3 bottle was the answer to a vulgar prayer; and that even if it wasn't, I could re-invent the stuff, Pygmalion-style by dressing it up and endowing it with a phoney accent. A shabby new world would then be mine for the asking.

But it wasn't. The wine tasted of suede all the way down to the bottom, whichever glass I drank it from. And I'd bought two bottles! Luckily, I palmed at least half of the second bottle off onto No.1 son (who either didn't notice or couldn't be arsed to complain) and that dealt with the problem, such as it was. And the thing is, although this experiment was a bust, I still feel moved to try and find ways to deceive the senses by re-contextualising the drink. Already I am planning to decant the cheapest of beverages into baronial containers, consume it blindfolded, smoke while drinking, eat cheese before during and after, glug straight from the bottle and out of unfamiliar receptacles (tea cups; ink bottles; Tupperware). The mind/body nexus is mutable and capable of being tricked. I will not let this one go.


Sunday 5 September 2010

Familae Piccini Chianti Riserva 2007

We have two categories of wine in our household. There is The Cellar, which My Affianced believes is protected by trip wires and light beams like something out of Mission Impossible. The Cellar is wine for guests, for special occasions, and for that dim and distant day when some of it might actually come to maturity. (Like sons, that day never seems to be when the calendar predicts, but moves to its own, unfathomable timetable.)

And then there is kitchen wine, so-called because that’s where it’s kept, to be drunk everyday, cooked with, or downed by sons and friends without repercussions. It’s a key tenet of my choice of kitchen wines that (a) they are inexpensive, and so can be used in a carefree fashion, and (b) that everyone will like them. Hence one of the staples of the kitchen wine rack is Chianti.

Chianti has a bit of tradition behind it. The very word classico on a label suggests something more serious than one of those New World attempts at ironic humour, or a gruesome pun on a region of France. (Goats Do Roam, anyone? Languid Duck? Or should that be Long Dog? ) Chianti is also a lighter red, which suits My Affianced more than the heavyweight stuff. (Which, of course, is in The Cellar…)

So when I spot what appears to be a bargain in the Chianti region (as it were), the chance of a kitchen wine with cellar interest is just too good to miss.

When it comes to wine, a little knowledge can be a dangerous (and occasionally expensive) thing. Bear that in mind, CJ. Knowing that riserva means a chianti has been aged for a statutory number of years, and knowing that modern chiantis succeed by blending just a touch of another grape with the traditional sangiovese, I was immediately lured to the Familae Piccini Chianti Riserva, which ticked all those boxes. Plus, it looked like a bargain.

Piccini’s regular, bog-standard Orange Label chianti was in Sainsbury’s at £6.59; but the better Superiore, normally £7.99, was reduced to £5.32; and the top of the range Riserva, normally £10.99, was reduced a staggering 50% to just £5.49. For the top of the range! An eleven quid wine for half price! And – here was the clincher – it had a security tag!!

Now call me miserly, call me mad, but I have never bought a wine from Sainsbury’s bearing a security tag. Frankly, if I was spending enough on a bottle to merit a security tag, it wouldn’t come from Sainsbury’s. So this was confirmation that I had spotted a real bargain. Along with the luxury condoms and the Mach 3 razorblades, this was clearly a shoplifter’s favourite.

And was it my imagination, or did the woman on the check-out give the label an appraising look as she removed the tag. And give me an admiring glance, too? Clearly a man, as Damon Albarn would say, who knows his claret from his Beaujolais.

Well. Once I got home, I did some research, as we who have a little knowledge of wine are wont to do. Am I in good company amongst the reviewers?

And here, in November 2008, is Jane McQuitty in The Times recommending the Piccini Riserva 2005, a “a bright, beefy, leather, truffle and spice-laden chianti” – reduced to £4.99.

In December 09, here’s the York student website recommending the 2006 Familae Piccini Chianti Reserva: "Rich and fruity. Good with lamb. A bottle for that Sunday roast with the housemates, perhaps?" – £5.49 was £10.99, Sainsbury’s.

And in April 2010, here’s Tim Curran in the Mirror : "Sainsbury's has superior Italian red Familae Piccini Chianti Riserva DOCG 2007 with its cherry flavours that go with red meat and game (half-price at £5.49 until Tuesday)."

So, what we are actually talking about here is a five quid wine. Not a security-protected, £10.99 bottle, unless you are unfortunate or stupid enough to buy it during the rare periods when it is not reduced. A wine which every year sells for £5, or thereabouts. A little knowledge which, frankly, changed my whole perspective.

As a five quid kitchen wine, this is perfectly good; fresh, light, inoffensive, moderately fruity and with a slight spiciness on the palate to give it some grip.

But as an eleven quid cellar wine, it is shallow, lacking in depth or complexity, with no richness or depth. It disappears in the mouth, with too little aftertaste.

Take your choice as to which is an appropriate response. The wine’s the same, it’s the expectations which are different – driven by price, and a little knowledge. Oh, and a security tag.


Wednesday 1 September 2010

Tesco California Red - Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and a load of others...

It's been so long since I drank this wine, I'll be frank with you, I can't really remember much about it. I've been away a bit, you know how it is, things get disorganised and...I can remember buying it (Tesco Metro, £4.15, got some sandwiches at the same time, it's etched in my mind) and I can remember sitting at the kitchen table and staring at it for a while, preparatory to drinking it, and then: it was red; it was wine; I was left with an empty bottle.

This, of course, makes it sound like a Ray Milland/Lost Weekend blackout, but, honestly, it wasn't. I didn't even drink it in one. No, the problem is that I have a poorly-developed sense of taste and an equally immature capacity for taste recollection. Which makes me hugely unsuited, clearly, for a job as say, a wine-taster, but well-suited to write for Sediment, provided we make room for certain observations:

1) Sediment is only partly about wine as such. Naturally I don't want to drink any fermented grape beverage that blinds me/makes me sick/is likely to prompt spontaneous combustion at home or in a public place. At the same time, I exist in a netherworld in which price point is King, with palate considerations down among the level of Rook (screwtop fastening and attractiveness of label coming in round about Queen and Knight). My ideal is never to spend more than £5 on a bottle, and that's it, that's my ethos. Now, PK, my oppo, takes a different view. Not only does he know his Merlot from his Pinot Noir, he is quite capable of spending £8 or even £10 on a bottle if he considers it a good deal (see his last, fiendishly clever, post). He even has a small cellar, which he maintains assiduously. In this scenario, I become Igor to his Baron Frankenstein, but there's nothing I can do about it. I aim low, and hope to undercut even that. One of the greatest of all book titles is Reach For The Ground, by the late Jeffrey Bernard. Says it all.

2) How much does a novel provenance matter? Another underlying Sediment objective: get the stuff from somewhere you don't expect. Mace and Tesco have already been name-checked in Sediment reports, but how far do we take it? I am looking forward to spending quality time in Lidl, Aldi, Costcutter and the rest, but this is only the start. France and Spain have yielded happy past encounters with stuff that comes in unmarked plastic flagons and recycled Badoit bottles, and I am keen to bring back those good times, just as I am keen to have a go at all manner of home-brewed filth and Drinks That Cannot Be Named. Let's have a poke around the back of the garage! Just to see.

3) Contexts and evasions. Is it really true that a cheap red wine, properly decanted, is indistinguishable in quality from a decent red served from the bottle? Can you reliably serve the decent stuff at the start of a dinner party before covertly switching to gutrot (round about the arrival of a fatty, pungent, main course) without your guests noticing? Does wine taste better if you drink it greedily and selfishly on your own, or convivially with another person? Hugh Johnson's World Atlas Of Wine: aid to understanding, or the wiring diagram for a ham radio you will never build?

There are more questions. In the interim? Tesco Calfornia red? I think I liked it. In fact, I'm almost certain I did. It was red, wasn't it?