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.