Sunday 30 January 2011

Aldi Baron Saint Jean Vin De Pays Du Gard

Straight to the point: Baron Saint Jean is a Vin de Pays built out of what are conscientiously known on the label as regional grapes, incorporating Grenache and Merlot and a couple whose names I couldn't read, plus possibly some more, not specified. Good with toad in the hole a cardboard sign above the shelf announced at my nearest branch of German supermarket giants Aldi, which made a refreshing change from all those predictable reflexive nods to game and cheese, but how do we feel about such candour while we're shopping for wine?

Anyway. I wanted to like this drink for all the obvious reasons – screw top, very cheap, red, unpretentious sales environment, a general ideological predisposition in favour of modern affordable mass-produced everyday wines – but I have to say that I was getting nervous as I tumbled out into the car park in order to drive my loot away. Why? Because I am starting to acquire a degree of apprehension about very cheap booze in this country, and for all that it goes against Sediment's philosophy (I've bought it so I'll drink it) I am starting to wonder if, long-term, I have the constitution for rock-bottom wines.

And Baron Saint Jean was a bit of a test. Handled with extreme care, it is just about drinkable. The first gusts from the neck of the bottle practically blinded me, and if you don't give it time to shake off the cellulose and vinegar fumes while it's sitting in the glass, you will find your mouth puckering like a drawstring pouch. Sip it respectfully, and it turns into a blackcurranty kind of sluicing narrowly covering the roof of the mouth, followed by a hot gas blast in the back of the throat, a lingering impression of plastic adhesive, ending with a peppery flourish of underarm deodorant spreading down towards the lungs. Not great, but not something you could feel indifferent towards, either.

Why, then, am I drinking it at all? Apart from the usual reasons? Well, the British Government has decided that something must be done about binge drinking in this country. And what they've decided is that there ought to be some kind of minimum price attached to alchoholic beverages, to deter people at a certain level in society from buying too much of the stuff and barfing all over town centres and attacking each other and covering each other in barf and bits of teeth.

A closed world to me, obviously, because I'm too old and feeble to go out drinking and fighting and barfing but: what struck both myself and PK (quite independently) was the fact that on the BBC news when this story broke, a bottle of red wine was displayed as Exhibit A in the Government's case for the prosecution, and this bottle purported to cost no more than a wildly irresponsible £2.09, yes, £2.09 for a full 75cl bottle of some kind of red grape-based adult beverage.

That is pretty cheap, it must be said (although the inhabitants of Spain, France, Italy, Greece and so on would find it provocatively oversold, given the likely contents) and yet I've never seen anything quite as bargain-basement on sale in London. Can you only get this stuff in Doncaster? Nuneaton? Sunderland? Cardiff?

So: how far do you have to go to get near this price in the South-East; and what's the stuff taste like when you've found it?

Clearly a job for me rather than PK but given the fact that universal time as we experience it is neither circular nor elastic and I didn't feel much like exerting myself, I cut to the chase (thus failing to address question 1 altogether) and expedited a bottle of red at Aldi, going for £2.99. The price was near enough – that magical £2-and-something price point - and all I had to do was go to Hounslow to get it. Which was about as glamorous as it sounds.

As for question 2? Obviously (see above) It wasn't good. Especially not when you consider my Terraventoux at €1 a bottle. I have always welcomed mass-produced tanker wines as opening up a world of accessible non-elitist cheap'n'cheerful wine drinking. But even I couldn't get on with the Baron.

What, then, is this stuff for? This kind of drink is not a drink anyone would really want to drink. It is a means to an end. You can't drink wood preservative responsibly. It's just there to get you into a different psychic state. Which poses second question: if the Government were to slap a few more pee in duty on the price of a bottle of (say) the Baron, would it really put off a determined, impecunious, undiscerning wine drinker, whether they wanted to consume the Baron with a nice plate of Toad in the Hole, or whether they wanted to neck it in ten minutes flat and go out and break something? Anyone who drinks this grog from choice will not be easily deterred by an extra 30 or 40p on the price.

I thought I'd never say this, but the problem is less to do with the price and more to do with the terrible quality. The harmfulness of the wine lies in the fact that it's extremely difficult to treat as wine, to develop a more-than-utilitarian relationship with it. You might as well drink anti-freeze or cough syrup, for all the enjoyment there is in the consumption. And the only way to break a causal connection which posits wine as a drug and not much else - and seriously modify people's behaviour with respect to it - is to treat booze like cigarettes and price it completely out of the market.

Is this really anyone's idea of an intended consequence? Even this Government's?


Wednesday 19 January 2011

The offspring of Chateau Musar

Could it be festive thoughts of the Holy Land which led several of the UK’s wine critics to consider Lebanese wine at the same time?

Here is the Telegraph, on 6th Jan; here the Guardian on 8th Jan; and here is the Herald in Scotland on 11 Jan. Hmmm. (There has even been an unrelated programme about Lebanese wine on Radio 4. ) Could it be coincidence? Or could it be that there has been a nice little pr trip, to which CJ and I were bizarrely not privy…

Anyway, virtually every article assumes that the reader knows of Chateau Musar, which, fortunately, I do. CJ possibly doesn’t, but frankly if that was a criteria for consideration in the Sediment blog, our content would be sorely constrained, and we would rank bizarrely high for a wine blog in a Google search for “Tesco”.

The Sediment blog is not really about such expensive top-flight wines. If only. However, unbeknownst to many, there is in fact an entire family of Musar wines. And the real coincidence of this piece is that, over the same festive period, I found myself experiencing most of the Musar range in various places across London, and attempting to get something of the Musar experience without investing in Chateau Musar itself. Or, for that matter, jaunting off to the Bekaa Valley…

The fabulously solid, spicy, smoky Chateau Musar, made by the Hochar family, has survived and indeed been exported throughout its home country’s upheavals. Having tasted this unique wine myself back in the 80s, I invested in a bottle, intending to mature it for the requisite eight years or so. But having kept it for ages, it then “disappeared” when I was not at home. I learnt my lesson, and guard my new cellar “assiduously” as CJ says. However, I can believe, in a spirit of forgiveness, that someone thought a scruffy-looking bottle of Lebanese wine was more likely to be bring-a-bottle party-fodder than anything else.

(And I’m reminded of the chap whose wine was drunk in his absence by builders. He returned to find a note of apology, “Sorry for drinking some of your wine, but we only took the old stuff. We’ve replaced it with new.”)

But just before Christmas, I went to the birthday party of Marion Style, wife of one of Nick Baker’s genuine Groovy Old Men, David Style, and I was actually thrilled to see on each table a bottle of 2003 Hochar Pere et Fils from Musar. This is a spin-off from the chateau, and son Spencer Style had found it available from Majestic for £11.99 (£9.99 each if you buy two). Musar’s a unique, acquired taste, and so this was a daring choice, I thought, for a mainstream gathering, like piping John Coltrane into a hotel lobby.

It was brick red, almost rusty in the glass, like an old port, with the smoky palate of an elderly claret, but a lighter, more downable weight. Absolutely delicious, a good reflection of the Musar style, and something of a bargain given its age.

Then, my own birthday lunch, at the Fulham restaurant, Del Aziz, before a Chelsea match. (Oh, I may not have the knowledge, wealth or cellar of the galactico wine critic James Suckling, but I do have a season ticket at Chelsea, the Lafite of London soccer, whereas he goes to watch Crystal Palace, a modest footballing vin de table.) Marek Black spotted Musar Mosaic 2007 on the winelist, and ordered a bottle “to taste the shell-smoke”, despite my warnings that (a) it was far too young, and (b) it had to be at least the third wine of Musar. (In fact, it’s not even listed on the Musar website. ) It was indeed a pale echo of the Musar taste, thin and bland – and at £21 a bottle, very poor value.

And then, having tasted two members of the Musar offspring, I was drawn by what must have been the only Chateau Musar window display in London. The City Beverage Company has a frontage of which the description “unprepossessing” is a compliment. But behind the coffee and confectionery in the entrance is more Musar than anywhere I have ever seen. (Not having been to the Bekaa Valley…) It has vintages going back every year for the last two decades or so, with the prices upping a smidgen each year; and it has half-bottles, which I have never seen anywhere else, also from some elderly vintages, and all priced in the ‘teens.

It also has rare varieties like Musar Jeune, which City Beverage boss Stuart Edwards (who has known the Hochar family from way back) explained was made from younger vines in the expanded vineyard. (Jeune, which again is not on the Musar website, is the equivalent of Mosaic, an equally young wine Stuart says is only available to the restaurant trade.) And finally, in this bewildering family of young and old, City Beverage has some bottles of 2004 Musar Cuvée Rouge.

Described by the Chateau as its second wine, the back label says that Cuvée Rouge is “made according to the philosophy of Chateau Musar,” an intriguing directive. It’s extremely rare in the UK. Again, it’s not on the Musar website (although there is a wine called Cuvée Musar). And despite its age, this “entry level” Musar experience (as Stuart described it) is only £7.95, just the thing for the Sediment blog.

Sediment likes the idea of “entry level”. It suggests you’re at the same concert, just with a restricted view. But sadly here, it’s not so much a restricted view as a restricted orchestra.

With a paler colour, and no legs to speak of, Cuvée Rouge is a pallid version of Musar; yes, it has that burnt, almost medicinal nose, but it’s low on fruit and doesn’t have a lasting finish. Tolerable with food, it is disappointing on its own.

This is a frankly confusing range of wines, some on the Musar website, some not, but all trading off the name of their magnificent parent. Hochar Pere et Fils can be recommended, easily the best-value introduction to the Musar experience, and more akin to the Chateau’s “second wine”, whatever their website says. But it would be a shame if bargain-hunters drinking the various other labels felt they had sampled what Musar has to offer. The tickets might be cheaper, but you wouldn’t judge Beethoven’s Ninth by a school orchestra performance.


Wednesday 12 January 2011

Semiotics - Stormhoek Pinotage 2008

Well, maybe I worry unduly about the look of things, or the exact fit of the glass in my sweating paw, or the foolproof opening qualities of the closure, or the price; and not quite enough about the quality of the drink going down my neck. But we live in a world full of mediations and interventions which are not directly about fermented grape juice but which bear heavily on it and - let's get to the point - would you drink a wine (or a beer, or indeed, a tisane) which said, in upper case, on the label, CHANGE THE WORLD OR GO HOME?

Perhaps it adds to the general sense of refreshment, being hectored by a bottle. I wouldn't want to be prescriptive about it. But when I got my case of trendy Stormhoek Pinotage as an Xmas present from my father-in-law, apart from being shamefully grateful (a whole case! Which is as much as to say, unlimited drink!) I was thrown momentarily off-balance by the disjunction between the label on the front - a mixture of blue and grey lettering on a white background, tasteful in a Travelodge sort of way, offset by a stylised, embossed, representation of a young woman draped in the sitting-room curtains, leaning against a metre-high ship's anchor - and the label on the back (which at first I thought was the front) which bellows the following instructions:

BE PASSIONATE LOVE (that's not a term of endearment, as in, "be passionate, madam", but a simply huge 66-point injunction) DREAM BIG BE SPONTANEOUS CELEBRATE and finally that minatory CHANGE THE WORLD OR GO HOME.

In other words, while the front is engaging us in a fairly tame, conventional, discourse, suitable for small claims lawyers and local council middleweights the world over, the back is shouting at us that in fact we fall dismally short as imaginative and fully engaged human beings and that, as W H. Auden very nearly observed, we must freaking well love one another and/or die.

I've spent some time fretting about this. Is it mean to be an opposition? If so, why? Is it an administrative cock-up? Or is it instead a worryingly bipolar articulation of the same idea – the notion that if you're the kind of underachiever who falls for the pallid suavities of the front label then you absolutely need to re-order your priorities as expressed on the back? In fact, a whole bottle went down while I brooded. (Stormhoek Pinotage is pretty tempting, by the way, a nice inky sort of red, velvety without being an actual fabric, not excessively shouty, unlike the packaging) until I thought of today's picture, the (detail of an) iconic Cartier-Bresson image of the boy in the Rue Mouffetard, taken in 1954.

Apart from the sly knowingness of the composition, matched only by the sly knowingness on the Gallic runt's face, the stars of the piece are of course the bottles of red wine he carries. They are the story: absolutely huge in comparison with the boy himself (eliciting a shout of appreciation from an equally small girl a few steps behind) and virtually anonymous, apart from a tag of some sort on the neck (Nicolas perhaps?). They lie in his arms like beasts that he has slain in the course of la chasse. They are wine bottles that demand investigation, and quite possibly some sort of subjugation. They are not wine bottles covered in warring signifiers, like a roundabout with too many roadsigns. They are unknown, creatures of nature.

And it's this facelessness which is so shocking to the modern drinker. Having moved from the daunting classicism of the traditional French wine label, all curlicues and masonic passwords, to the yelling insistence of New World volume-produced grog (GO HOME, LOVE), we've got used to being told something about the experience ahead of us. Unlike, say, a lamb chop or a piece of cake, wine comes wrapped in language. It's a crutch which has been fashioned in thousands of different ways over time, without ever not being a crutch. But what happens when the instructions stop? Wouldn't it be nice if more things were unidentified, speculative, transparently mysterious? What's in those bottles?


Thursday 6 January 2011

In praise of the half-bottle

Driven perhaps by recent over-indulgence, perhaps by New Year austerity, I feel that the half-bottle of wine deserves a re-appraisal. Quite apart from constraining my consumption, there are some valid points to be made in celebration of the half-bottle, even if they do bring me into direct conflict with CJ, who seems to prefer the jerrycan as a measure.

The thing is, the half-bottle is really a solitary pleasure. There simply isn’t enough to share. I have watched disbelievingly as a Parisian couple shared a half bottle of wine over lunch. (At the other end of this scale, I once nodded admiringly at two City chaps sitting down at Rules restaurant to a serious lunch of steak and kidney pudding and a magnum of claret. Respect.)

Does that mean there’s something of the sad and lonely about the half-bottle? Something of the book beside the dining plate, the microwaved meal-for-one, and the failure to subscribe to BT Friends & Family because you can’t make up the numbers?

No; look at it the other way. There’s nothing greedy about a half-bottle to yourself. You can sit alone at a table with a half-bottle in front of you, and project an image of totality; neither profligate nor parsimonious, this is my all.

And knowing that it’s your all, you can pace your drinking accordingly. We all do it; that’s the slug for before, top it up for the starter, leave that for the main… you pace yourself according to the quantity of wine at hand. (And hence there is nothing more irritating than a companion who suddenly says, halfway down a bottle, “Do you know, I will have a glass after all?” Oh, so there won’t be enough left to go with my cheese, then. Suddenly, like a sat-nav taken on a diversion, you have to recalculate everything.)

The half-bottle is all yours, to open and complete. Yes, one could always decant half of a 75cl bottle, and seal the rest for another day; that still provides you with that satisfying sense of completion, watching the level go down and pacing your consumption until the last drops are wrung from your carafe. But there is something about having an actual bottle on the table, connecting the taste and the label, which a decanter can never provide.

And is it just me (and I often discover it is…) but don’t you always find that the first “half” you decant is invariably larger than the second? Is it the difficulty of accounting properly for the quantity in the narrower neck? Or just the excitement of opening a new bottle? Whatever; Day Two’s “half” is never quite enough…

The real problem – and let’s face it, there always seems to be a problem where the Sediment blog is concerned – is that it’s hard to get decent red wine in half bottles. It’s too much trouble for a lot of producers to change their bottling lines. The really good stuff needs the size of a bottle (or even a magnum) to mature properly over the years; the bulk wine merchants don’t bother stocking half-bottles; and in the supermarkets half-bottles are often just “cooking wines”.

However, close to my office is a wine merchant, Uncorked. As far as I can see, the main role of this shop is to provide frighteningly expensive wines for City types with huge amounts of money. I was in here once (browsing, just browsing…) when a chap walked in; the assistant said “Good afternoon sir…Got anything in mind?” and the customer actually replied “Oh, about a thousand pounds a case…?”

(They also have, at the time of writing, four bottles of Chateau La Mission Haut Brion 1983, each at £600.01. Yes, that’s six hundred pounds and a penny. Now, I know margins are tight these days, but… a penny?)

Anyway, Uncorked does offer a good selection of half-bottles. Perhaps instead of a moderately good magnum, City boys now limit themselves to a good half-bottle at lunchtime – or perhaps it’s to offer something to penniless plebs like me – but there are half a dozen interesting halves of red in the shop, and online Uncorked list 23 half-bottle reds, (click on Bt Sz in their list to see) including some serious Bordeauxs – Pichon-Longueville Lalande 2005 at £40.80 a half-bottle, anyone? Apart from that one, the rest are below £20, and there’s something exciting to me about seeing a wine list with good Bordeauxs priced affordably in the ‘teens, even if you are only getting half the quantity.

And perhaps that’s the thing; half-bottles are an opportunity to experience wines you couldn’t afford by the bottle. Lesser quantity, higher quality; isn’t that the New Year resolution of many? Not CJ, I suspect, but if so, perhaps this is the answer. Sometimes, it can be better to do things by halves.