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.