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…