Wednesday 30 March 2011

Tesco Cava

So the wife had the bright idea of ordering a load of cheap fizzy in time for Christmas in order to keep the family lightly gassed throughout the nightmare we know as the Festive Period. She found Tesco Cava Brut going for a fantastic around-£4-a-bottle special deal and ordered two cases. Then the snow fell and along with Heathrow Airport, the rest of the UK came to a halt, all our booze with it. No-one knew where it was, not us, not Tesco. It might possibly have been marooned in a delivery hub in Warrington, possibly not. Christmas edged nearer, no drink, Tesco promised pitifully that it would arrive in time for Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve came and went, as did Christmas Day, Boxing Day and the New Year holiday. Nothing.

Our grog finally turned up, quite unexpectedly, in mid-January. Good news was that they delivered vastly more than we'd asked for, presumably in some token of apology. No no, we cried as the light was blotted out by mountains of cardboard boxes, some mistake, but the delivery guys just shrugged and heaped the cases up in the hallway. Not only that, but Tesco threw in some fancier Cavas (Codorniu and Marques de Monistrol, 2006 vintage), I think because they'd run out of the rock-bottom stuff we'd actually ordered.

Bad news too, because of course by mid-January everyone had checked into rehab to get over Christmas, and there was no possibility of our even beginning to drain the Cava lake which had suddenly welled up in our lives. Moreover, it is now the end of March, and we still have thirty-two bottles to get through, and with the best will in the world, I am starting to struggle.

Not that there's anything wrong with the basic Tesco Cava, as long as you chill it to death. I know a guy who once worked with the Freixenet company and he was told (by the boss, indeed) that the way to serve Cava was to chill it so much that ice crystals formed in the glass as you poured it. Which is terrific if you're in, say, Madrid, on a hot June night, less so in England in winter. Still, my routine is to get the Tesco product down to a hairsbreadth above absolute zero, and what do I find but a nice prickly mousse, followed by a hint of burnt caramel on the tongue, then a ferocious poof as it expands rapidly across the floor of the mouth like a CO2 fire extinguisher, leaving only a chesty rasp in its wake. It passes the time very agreeably, especially when you consider what we paid.

Then I get bored. I still have over thirty bottles to get through, and how long does this stuff keep? PK suggests six months, but that's counting from January, which means I now have four months in which to neck my thirty bottles, which is roughly two bottles a week, and even with help from the wife and anyone else around, I don't think I have that much frivolity in me. So I try and trick myself into thinking the Tesco Cava is something else, not Cava, by adding things to it.

Not the home-made sloe gin which no. 1 son once used to make an intriguing Champagne cocktail, only to discover that it produced a lethal fizzy syrup, a kind of psycho cherryade. No, I have professional kit, charitably donated in second-hand form by our French friends, in the form of an almost-empty bottle of Cassis; some Crème de Figue, similarly used; and a bottle of Crème de Pêches, almost untouched, which should have told me something.

As it turns out, the Cassis Is the only one I can look forward to without some degree of apprehension. It may have gone a bit brown in colour and have a certain amount of jammy horror around the neck, but Tesco Cava + elderly Cassis = quite a funky sensation of cloves and gravy browning, oddly warming in the context of the frigid Cava. The Figue, by way of contrast, while starting off with a promising chocolately introduction, turns fairly quickly into a garbled story of deodorant, granulated sugar and aircraft dope. I want to like it, being the nearest in character to that slinky Crème de Noisette you sometimes find, but is it decrepitude? An inferior brand? Inherent nastiness? Something morbid turns the Figue into a drink occupying the narrow isthmus that connects the quixotic to the merely weird, and I cannot bring myself to love it.

But at least it's not the Crème de Pêches. Peaches are lovely things. The label alone enchants. So why has it been barely touched? Well, as it turns out, it breaks new ground in potable filth. I get as far as discovering that yes, drain cleaner and marzipan can be found in the form of an alchoholic drink, before reflexively tipping the rest down the sink, an action I almost never perform in the real world. Toxic is the only word.

And then I sit and stare angrily at the still-fairly-full Crème de Pêches bottle, and at the thirty remaining Tesco Cavas. Who would have thought it could be so challenging?


Wednesday 23 March 2011

Claret or Bordeaux? – Chateau Tour de Barbereau

There are many individual words which I associate with wine. My personal favourite is “more”.
However, the word at the heart of this particular post is one which resonates with history, with class, with Englishness – it is “claret”.
The first piece of wine knowledge that a young Englishman must acquire is that in the universities, clubs and dining rooms to which he should aspire, red Bordeaux wine is commonly called claret. He must learn this because ordering mature claret may, if he enjoys the fruits of success, become a common occurrence. But the word “claret” is not actually present on the label of a good Bordeaux. It is something he is expected to know.  
(“Educated the expensive way,” sang Blur, “He knows his claret from his Beaujolais” – not, you may note, his Bordeaux from his Beaujolais. James Bond unveiled the assassin Wint in Diamonds are Forever, simply because the man didn’t know that Mouton-Rothschild is a claret. Even CJ refers to red Bordeaux as claret, and he believes that a gentleman is a chap who removes the plates from a sink before he pees in it.)
Indeed, a claret which does describe itself as claret on its label is usually rubbish. This is because the term has been adopted as a marketing device for flogging really crap Bordeaux to unsuspecting folk. The very word “claret” conjures up Pall Mall clubs, leather armchairs and cigars, so it gets stuck on the label of grotty Bordeaux in the hope of luring arrivistes.  
The only exception to this rule is Club Claret (or House Claret), where the character of the club (or house) is such that their selection of a Bordeaux provides an imprimatur of excellence.  I can personally vouch for the Royal Automobile Club Claret and, thanks to my presumptive father-in-law, the Travellers Club Claret; whereas Asda Claret is virtually a contradiction in terms.
(St James’s claret is therefore perfectly acceptable, as one would expect in the cradle of gentlemen’s clubs. St Francis Claret, however, is a good example of something which is not a claret at all   It comes from Sonoma County, California which was not in Bordeaux the last time I looked. And claret is not, as their website bizarrely suggests, a varietal. We must forgive them, because they are Californian, but still.)
Hence the very word claret is quintessentially English, and mature claret – encompassing our national love of time past – is a concept to which most English gentlemen (possibly even CJ) aspire. And our main aspiration is to simply be able to afford it. For while the price of decent Bordeaux climbs ever upwards, one of the few characteristics CJ and I share with the gentry is impecuniousness.
So when a traditional English wine merchant offers a “limited parcel of mature claret” at an absurdly affordable price, we are summoned by bells in all departments – sociological, eonological and fiscal.
There’s no doubt that Chateau Tour de Barbereau has all the elements of a traditional claret. For a start, it’s got the script lettering and drypoint illustration on its label which means that someone like CJ can feel confident putting it on their table. It’s been mis en bouteille au chateau, in the Gironde, so it’s not just some blend of generic Bordeaux leftovers. And it’s got a year – 2006 – which could suggest maturity.
Had we but world enough and time, I could launch into a whole thing about Bordeaux vintages, but frankly we haven’t; I’ve got a 5-year-old claret for under £6, and all we really need to know is – drinkable, or not?
Well. The nose is great; rich, and blackcurranty. That fruit comes through in the mouth too, followed by a good, tannic backbone. It leaves that classic Bordeaux dryness on the palate as it goes, and has a reasonable finish. One to sip and savour, you think.
But beware; it fades in the glass. Ultimately this is a wine without real depth, and by the end of an evening the fruits have gone and only those dry tannins really hang on. Shared amongst friends with a large glass each, great – but settle in for an evening with a bottle and a book, and it creeps quietly away from you into the night like a guilty party.
To get any wine which merits the description “mature claret” for less than £6 is an achievement. But as we’ve seen, that’s a term which resonates with expectations. So tell guests that “it needs drinking up”. You will simultaneously excuse its fading glory; hint at a vast and difficult to manage cellar; and suggest a knowledge of Bordeaux vintages. It’s all in the words.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Sula Vineyards Pt. 2

And another thing. 

I also tried some of Sula's Sauvignon Blanc, this time at a staggeringly chi-chi boutique hotel in northern Goa, and it was fine, tasting pretty much of Sauvignon Blanc, a touch of wine gums and frangipani (I averred theatrically at the time), still the equivalent of £20 a bottle, but something was missing.

Couldn't have been the setting (on a bluff overlooking the Arabian Sea, since you ask) or the food (Goan clam curry) or the service (waiters in chrome yellow jackets hovering about like animated sunflowers). It was something about the Sauvignon Blanc, an inappropriateness which threw me, especially considering how much it was costing. Surely it would fit perfectly with the clams, which were tasting just great? I mean, a glass of wine goes with almost anything you can mention. I've drunk wine with fried eggs, fruit cake, whelks, stuffed hearts, a BLT, chilli con carne, a nasturtium salad. I don't think it goes, frankly, with porridge or a Snickers bar. But apart from that.

And yet with the clams there was a discordance which normally I would have ignored in order to get my fix of booze, but which this time got very slightly on my nerves. The elevated (figurative and literal) nature of the meal had something to do with it. But also the fact that it was Indian cooking.

This happened with the Cabernet Shiraz, too, to be honest. Those flavourings – cumin, tamarind, coriander, turmeric – so bracing, so keen to tell their own stories, just get in a tangle with wine. Plus the fact that much of the best food is vegetarian, with a light, zingy articulacy about it (if it's good and fresh): and wine seems to come out the loser, a kind of alcoholic gravy, forever in danger of settling heavily in that interzone between your midriff and your forehead. Its natural companion, you start to feel, is always going to be something much more European, greasy and unctuous; pasta, or (Heaven forfend) roast beef.

Which is why the default beverage (if you drink, and a lot of Indians don't, for religious reasons, or just because it doesn't suit) is so often the excellent Kingfisher beer, or Cobra. And if you want to go stronger, some Indian whisky, served long with soda. Well-to-do Indians of a certain age drink whisky-and-soda like there's no to-morrow, especially if you believe the stories of Khushwant Singh, but not so much wine. You've got to have something sharper and more effervescent - to keep the heat at bay, and to surf over the tasty spices.

In fact, we did get stuck into some Indian whisky, strictly for sundowner purposes, and it wasn’t too bad, a hint of nail varnish remover and a slightly boggling finish. Royal Stag was the make, A blend of Imported Scotch Malts and Select Indian Grain Spirits it said on the label, and Seagram’s were responsible for it, as they seem to be responsible for a lot of liquor in India. It also worked out at about £2.50 a bottle, bargain of the week in comparison with the Sauvignon.

And in and of itself, it offered a pretty good response to the Indian wine revolution. A lot is being made of predictions that Indian wine consumption will grow by 25% per annum over the next few years. But that will be very largely among the new urban rich, for whom it may be as much about chic as taste. Otherwise, it’ll remain a minority interest in a population of 1.2 billion, many of whom can’t afford a bottle of wine, domestic or imported, under any circumstances. They’ll stick to beer, Indian whisky-and-soda, or, if sufficiently motivated, some palm toddy.

Eurocentrically, I’d always assumed that everyone, the world over, would drink wine if cultural and economic conditions promoted it. But I think I may have been mistaken. There is no predictable primacy in drink. Or did we already know that?


Monday 7 March 2011

Sula Vineyards Cabernet Shiraz

Indian wine? Really?

Yes, yes, we all know that India is a country rapidly on the move, rich in intellectual capital, a world-class producer of pharmaceuticals, steel, IT services, aerospace technology, high-end skills. It also boasts a fantastic culinary tradition and just about every climatic variation known to man. But wine?

Well, put down those raised eyebrows and pay attention. Wine has been made in India for centuries, and the new Indian wine industry is actually nothing more than a resurgence of a well-established tradition. The biggest concentration of vineyards is not far from Mumbai; with a couple of smaller regions near Shimla (north) and Bangalore (south). Wine exports from India are increasing at an annual rate of around 9 per cent, while domestic consumption, fuelled by the growth of the new Indian middle class, is similarly on the rise. And the reason why I'm going on about Indian wine so flagrantly is because I've just got back from that country, and yes, it is fantastically exciting, eye-opening, dazzling, bonkers, all the platitudes. And I drank a bit of wine while I was out there.

Not a huge amount, because they were charging London prices, the equivalent of £20 a bottle if you're rash enough (I know I was) to ask for it in your boutique hotel. Nor could I find any cheaper wine at any of the numerous so-called Wine Shops we passed along the way, because the numerous Wine Shops seemed to sell only beers and spirits of a faintly intimidating nature, not wine, not the ones I went into.

The other restriction concerned the brand: because wherever you do see wine on offer, chances are it'll be from the Sula Vineyard, which seems to have colonised the territory fairly thoroughly, with its amiable branding (a smiley sun god, Surya, welcoming you to the label); serious investment in production and quality control (including India's first tasting room, designed by Californian architects, even); and entrepreneurial zip (the founder, Rajeev Samant, was a Silicon Valley wiseguy before getting stuck into the wine revolution). Sula now offers a range of over twenty different wines, reds, rosés, whites and sparkling, also no aversion to screwtops, a completely modern take on things, and a similarly modern desire to have the marketplace to themselves.

The pity of it is that I only seem to have drunk a half-bottle of the Cabernet Shiraz (maybe that's all they had) while staying in my 17th-Century Rajasthan gentleman's micropalace. False memory told me it was a whole bottle until I looked at the picture on my return home. Because, according to some notes I made in haste immediately after swigging it, it was pretty good. Rather daringly, I observed that it was low on tannin, but big and blackcurranty, and, conveniently cribbing from the notes on the back of the bottle, peppery. I also detected a round finish. Overall it reminded me of a thunderous and highly-prized Sicilian red that I tried at the Wine Show last year, the sort of wine whose arm around the shoulder seems to be about to turn into a headlock, but in a good way.

The label also suggested serving it chilled. Given that it was such a hairy-chested wine, not some effete Beaujolais production, this seemed perverse. I'm aware that the convention about room temperature reds can be overdone but I'm not absolutely persuaded that something so big, fruity and enveloping gains a lot from having the bottle lightly misted. On the other hand, given the temperature in much of India, much of the year (Indian joke: Dinner-party hostess to guests – 'Do come and sit down before the soup gets warm'), it may just be a precaution against the stuff mulling itself in the ambient heat.

At any rate I rather wish I'd had the other half, now, hot or cold, and hang the expense. Holiday nostalgia does that to you.