Wednesday 23 February 2011

Drinking wine with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street

Following my recent invitation for a glass of wine at 10 Downing Street…

No, let me start again.
When I was invited to drinks with the Prime Minister,…

The thing is, CJ is away – which is why you have two postings on the trot from me. And there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth when he returns; for he will discover that I have taken yet another upward step in my social status during his absence. Because this post is not about drinking wine at my dining table or in the study; no, this is about drinking wine behind (as the No 10 website puts it) “the most famous front door in the world”.

An invitation to Downing Street is understandably surrounded by security arrangements, and there are restrictions on telling people much about a visit. However, no-one has told me that I cannot talk about the wine, which is what you lot are really interested in, and of which I had high hopes.

Recent articles like this have revealed something of the quality of the government’s cellars. I thought it unlikely that they would bring out the Chateau Petrus 1978, worth more than £2,500 a bottle, for our little soirĂ©e. But perhaps the Chateau Latour 1955, with its little note, "Drink on v. special occasions”? This occasion was certainly v.special to me.

And look, the Chateau Palmer 1975 is described as a "really old-fashioned style claret, rich and excellent with some austerity"! Precisely what we have now – some austerity!! The Palmer '75 would indeed be excellent with it.

Well, needless to say, I was sorely disappointed.

There is something thrilling about arriving at Downing Street, showing your invitation to the policeman, and being guided through the gates while a gaggle of tourists look on, clearly thinking ‘Who the hell is that?” There are various security procedures whereof I cannot speak, before you are ushered through the shiny front door and into No 10 itself.

I must first draw particular attention to the glassware. We have had several tussles on the Sediment blog over appropriate drinking containers, but I can say with some confidence that No 10 surpasses even CJ in clumsy glassware. Our wine was served in clunky, green-glass goblets, more appropriate to a campfire celebration with Robin Hood’s Merrie Men.

The only possible explanation is that, along with so many other elements of such an evening, proper glassware is considered to be a security risk. These Downing Street wallahs have clearly been to a few dodgy pubs in their time; presumably, these goblets are either unbreakable, or would crumble like a car windscreen in the unlikely event of a guest attempting to “glass” the Prime Minister.

Obviously I am not privy to the catering arrangements at No 10. It is admittedly unlikely, even faced with yet another invasion of their Pillared Room by a group of strangers, that the Camerons simply popped down to the offie. But whether the wine was actually provided by No 10, or chosen by our reception organisers, I do not know.

However, in standard, drinks-party manner, your goblet is proffered with a choice of red or white wine. And here’s the thing.The white was Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc, an innocuous, fruity and citrussy New Zealand wine which you can buy in virtually any supermarket or off-licence. Indeed, at the time of writing, you can get 26% off at Tesco, something which might appeal more to No 11.

Obviously we were not attending for the wine, but a visit to No 10 is rather special, and this Sauvignon Blanc is so widely available, and so blandly drinkable, that it doesn’t register as anything special whatsoever.

The same is true of the red – Campo Viejo Rioja Crianza Reserva; again, relatively innocuous, blandly drinkable and widely available. The only thing I can really say in favour of the selection of this pair is that judiciously, one is from the Commonwealth and the other from the EU; coincidence, or politics?

So basically, a lot of things are special about a drinks evening at No 10 – but not the drinks. Perhaps they are trying to emulate the population at large by providing the kind of modestly priced, bland and unchallenging wine many people would buy for themselves. Make them feel at home. Except…we’re not at home. We’re at 10 Downing Street.

Anyway, we sipped from our health and safety approved goblets, their rims thick as china mugs. There was in fact no violence, even though security had clearly overlooked the lethal potential of a weapons-grade vol-au-vent. The PM toured the room, meeting and greeting in an accomplished manner. A few words to the gathering; a little, probably well-used joke confusing Nick Clegg with his wife as his absent “other half” (ho ho); and a crafted reference to the value of “our industry” which would clearly fit any bunch of visitors.

Presumably No 10 learnt long ago that world leaders were not averse to pocketing a reminder of their visit, and so there is absolutely nothing to, er, take home. No crested notepads, badged pencils or matchbooks. Even the gents loo air freshener and soap are, as it were, bog standard. So with no phalanx of flashbulbs to illuminate my exit, I left alone and with only my memories into the dark of Downing Street like a reshuffled Minister.

For a very modest outlay, you can experience the whole thing for yourself. First, down to your local retailer for a bottle of Villa Maria or Campo Viejo. Find your clunkiest heavyweight goblet, and log into the No 10 Virtual Tour. Pick up your glass – “Red or white, sir?” – as you view the Terracotta Room where drinks are provided; then sip your wine while viewing the Pillared Room where guests congregate. Should you wish to avail yourself of the lavatory (surprisingly omitted from the Virtual Tour), rest assured that your own is probably not very different to the one at No 10. This will give you the whole experience; except, of course, for the opportunity to share a few words with one of the most significant, insightful and interesting people in the country. But if you send me an invite…


Friday 11 February 2011

Chapoutier Cotes du Roussillon – the ultimate dinner party wine

There are quite enough social challenges involved in going round to people for dinner. What will you wear? Have you got anything to say? And is that strange man going to be there again? (No, I’m afraid I'm busy…)

But the Sediment blog has sorted one of those challenges out for you; the perennial problem of which bottle of wine to take as a gift.

We’ve all seen the mockery which awaits someone on Come Dine With Me who turns up to dinner without a bottle. As a social faux pas, it ranks only slightly below turning up waving two.

But the choice of wine can be a social minefield. Too cheap can be embarrassing, the equivalent of those mauve flowers from the petrol station with a bouquet of benzene. Too expensive can be awkward, either imposing an obligation to open it, or creating frustration if it’s whisked away never to be seen again. You also don’t know what the food will be, and whether there might be a serious wine buff amongst the guests. Nightmare…

However, here is the solution – M. Chapoutier’s Cotes du Roussillon, £8.99 from Sainsbury’s. And here are the reasons why…

Michel Chapoutier is a superstar winemaker, who makes some magnificent and expensive wines; see my little tussle with CJ over the content, cork and cost of the Terlato Chapoutier Shiraz Viognier here and then here. He has a great reputation, some slightly cranky ideas about biodynamic winegrowing, and best of all, even CJ can pronounce his name.

(Unlike such potentially tongue-twisting wine luminaries as, say, Christian Moueix…)

This Cotes du Roussillon has got the classy white labels which characterise top-flight Chapoutier wines, and which also carry the wine’s details in braille, always a good talking point (tactfully avoiding jokes about the blind drunk). And for this purpose, the price is spot-on. £8.99 means it won’t have appeared in any of the real bargain-buy round-ups, so you won’t look like a miser. Nobody even needs to know you got it from Sainsbury’s. Equally, it’s not so obviously expensive that your host might feel duty-bound to open it. However, so as not to spoil the impression entirely, do take it out of the Sainsbury’s bag…

Now, what if you arrive to find a wine buff? Someone lifts the bottle you’ve brought and peruses the label, at the 45o angle which immediately flags a connoisseur. And they say “Ah, right…” in that supercilious way which sends shivers down CJ’s spine because it indicates a smart-arse. (CJ’s posterior has been hyphenated with many adjectives, but “smart-“ is not one of them.)

Well, here’s the really neat bit. Chapoutier’s famous for his Cotes du Rhone wines, and this is from the Cotes du Roussillon, a different area entirely (the hint is in the name, CJ…) So if you find this wine being appraised by a buff, you can say something along the lines of “Yes, Chapoutier, do you know his stuff? Out of his usual area, of course, but it’ll be interesting to see how he gets on…”

And after that, like it or love it, it’s Chapoutier’s fault! You didn’t make a bad choice, you made an interesting choice, and if people are disappointed by it, well, “Perhaps Michel should have stayed at home, eh?…”

That’s if you get to drink it, of course. It may well get whisked away, like so many gift wines, never to be seen again. But if you do get to drink it, you will discover the final point in its dinner-party favour – it is utterly innocuous. This wine cannot conceivably upset anybody. It is not spicy or powerful; it is not weighty or rich; it is not tannic or oaky. To be honest, it’s a bit of a lightweight, which would be a disappointment if I was settling down for a fireside evening alone, but is ideal for an unknown meal with unknown people serving unpredictable food. It might get swamped in the taste stakes if you’re given anything to eat more pungent than a slice of ham, but no-one is going to wince at a glass of this. Frankly, they won’t even notice it.

If you do want a good, well-priced Chapoutier wine from Sainsbury’s for yourself, then go for the Taste the Difference Cotes du Rhones Villages . It’s cheaper, an astonishing £6.15; it’s Chapoutier on his home turf; and frankly, it’s a cracking wine, plump and full-bodied, fruity and spicy.

So why could you not take the Taste the Difference bottle to a dinner party instead? Oh, look, pay attention at the back. A Taste the Difference bottle looks as if you have just thoughtlessly plucked it from the shelves while trolleying your week’s necessities. Yes, you could still deliver a Chapoutier spiel, but it would come across as an experiment in saving money, a cheaper Chapoutier rather than an unusual Chapoutier.

So serve the cheaper but better Cotes du Rhone in the privacy of your own home; take the interesting, classy but bland Cotes du Roussillon out as a gift. Yes, I know such things are shallow – but there’s more to wine than just depth, you know…