Wednesday 25 May 2011

Wine from a Parisian supermarket - Chateau Coufran

I’ve got used, begrudgingly, to buying wine from supermarkets – but a Parisian supermarket is something else.

We are not talking here about the giant hypermarchés beloved of booze cruisers, nor the Lidl to which CJ unaccountably turns when in Ventoux  – no, this was a trim little two-storey Monoprix on the Rue du Bac, doing for Parisians what a Tesco Metro or a Sainsbury’s Local would do in a UK city. Only, when it comes to wine, it was doing something very different.

There I was, buying the usual stuff one smuggles guiltily past hotel reception in order to snack in your room and avoid using the mini-bar. You know the score. It was a neat little supermarket, where the residents of St Germain get their post-work purchases and ready meals for one. But it was also a place where I patiently followed what I thought was a clearly disabled chap down the stairs, only to find that he was in fact a drunk, having difficulty manhandling several cans of beer clutched to his stomach. So plus ça change – there was probably a spillage in aisle four…

The wine was conveniently shelved opposite the cold meats. Following universal supermarket principles, the lower the price, the lower the shelf, and at the bottom was a perfectly tolerable Bordeaux for 2.90 – that’s about £2.55, a price which would please even CJ, and is perhaps to be expected. But on the top shelf… on the top shelf….

There is Chateau Figeac 1998, 186 a bottle. Leoville Las Cases 1994, 219 – that’s £193 a bottle, on the shelf of a supermarket. Even Chateau d’Yquem 1995, 270 – that’s £237 a bottle. Opposite the cold meats.

Surely this is taking egalité too far. In wine, as in all things, there are those who spend a little (CJ) and those who spend a lot. But in appealing equally to all purchasers of, say, sardines, a supermarket can offer both the basic and the very best, within perhaps double or treble the basic price. There is, I suggest, no other comestible in which the price difference between the cheapest and the most expensive on the shelf is a multiple of 100.

Call me whatever (I’ll have heard it before…), but I simply don’t expect to trolley a wine costing £200. If, if I am ever spending that kind of money on a bottle, I will go to Flunkey & Sons, where one of the Flunkeys will emerge from a cellar, cradling my purchase like a newborn. I want someone to talk me through the chateau and the vintage (confirming what I already know, of course…). I want a look of admiration (“Well-chosen, if I might say so, sir…”) and even a degree of envy that I am going to have the wondrous experience which this wine will offer (and which he, as a humble Flunkey, cannot afford).

I certainly do not want moppable flooring, tannoy announcements and surly check-out staff who ask you in French if you have their loyalty card – with my appalling French, can I possibly sound like a regular customer? – then slam security-sealed bottles upside down into the devices which unlock them, hardly the way to treat a good bottle of wine. So, no, I did not buy a £200 bottle from Monoprix.

What I actually bought was a bottle of Chateau Coufran, a sound Cru Bourgeois from the Haut-Medoc for 14.90 which, at the prevailing exchange rate, works out at just over £13. That’s a modest saving; UK prices range from £14 to £22 a bottle. But what was particularly impressive to me was that this was a 2001 vintage.

Now, if it was Christmas in England, you might just find a ten-year-old claret being offered in a supermarket, as a wine for Christmas lunch or as a gift. But you would be very unlikely to find it there on an average Spring day, a bottle of properly mature yet affordable Bordeaux which you could stick in your basket along with some cheese and salami for an impromptu supper. Which I did.

(If you’re interested, it was fruity and rich, surprisingly still a little stern around the edges, but a warm, deep and spicy claret.)

Back home, there are two kinds of shopping I do at a supermarket. There’s the planned, regular everyday consumption – and a bottle of drinkable plonk for £2.55 would certainly fall into that category. Then, there’s the impulse purchase of something interesting, and along with the first English asparagus, the Jersey Royals and that reduced fillet steak, a delicious bottle of ten-year-old Bordeaux for £13 would certainly find its way into my basket. A £200 bottle of wine, however, falls into neither of those categories, and still strikes me as a bizarre presence on a supermarket shelf.

Or perhaps I am simply not Parisian?


Thursday 19 May 2011

Campbell's Rutherglen Muscat

So I had this half-bottle of Rutherglen Muscat left over, unopened, from Christmas, and PK was round, eating us out of house and home, and in a moment of rare cunning I suggested we both attack the Rutherglen while we ate what I genteelly refer to as the pudding course.

Pudding course turned out to be a bit of old cheesecake, not really appropriate for a sticky brown concoction such as Rutherglen Muscat, sitting in its bottle like floor varnish, no, cheesecake was much too foamy and indistinct, one should have been eating, say, panforte, or maybe a piece of fresh tarmac to make any impression against it. Nevertheless, out came the Rutherglen and we sipped it dubiously and said:

PK: I'll tell you what.
CJ: What?
PK: Rum'n'raisin ice cream. That's what it tastes like.
CJ: You're absolutely right.
PK: It's cheap and syrupy.
CJ: It can't be. I paid, I don't know, £11 for this crappy little bottle.
PK: But syrupy.
CJ: Yes, syrupy.
PK: So sweet.
CJ: It's meant to be. It's a pudding wine.
PK: Why don't you call it a dessert wine like everybody else?
CJ: Why don't you call it a pudding wine?
PK: It's a dessert wine.
CJ: It's like drinking a Christmas Pudding.
PK: You've never drunk a Christmas Pudding.
CJ: I was speaking figuratively.
PK: It's like Sticky Toffee Pudding.
CJ: As bad as that?
PK: It gets stuck in your saliva glands.
CJ: Talk about raisiny.
PK: It's just too sweet.
CJ: I don't think we can finish this, can we?
PK: I've already finished mine.
CJ: Not the cheesecake. The wine.
PK (biliously): I don't think we can.

You get the picture. At no point did we smack our lips and announce, over-loudly, how much we were enjoying ourselves.

The cheesecake was partly to blame, of course. A wine this, frankly, adhesive, is lost without something serious to wrestle with. The bottle we did drink with the Christmas Pudding, at Christmas, was a much better fit. (Is that the only time, now I think about it, we ever get in a pudding wine? At Christmas? In France I did once drink a Sauternes, served with foie gras in the classic manner, and it was kind of interesting, like brushing your teeth with sausage meat and caramel, but other than that?)

Still, even allowing for the fact that Rutherglen Muscat + Christmas Pudding = a sensation of lardy wellbeing, there was a sense of having been obscurely short-changed, and the person who had that sense was me, given that it was my change which had bought the drink in the first place. Immediately, I looked for someone to blame. And I blamed Oddbins.

At the time of writing, Oddbins is in administration. The branch round the corner (where I got the Rutherglen) has closed down. It doesn't look as if the chain is going to be resurrected, so it'll join the dead Threshers (round the other corner) as a monument to a failed model of wine retailing.

Will I miss it? Not much, if only because the complex and not really satisfactory Rutherglen was a symptom of Oddbins' slightly strange purchasing policy and its increasingly desperate habit of bouncing you into something you weren't sure you wanted in the first place. (While I'm playing the blame game, I might as well finger PK for his original insistence in his post of October, 2010, that one should befriend one's local wine shop, and the local wine shop he befriended was indeed Oddbins, but that's by the way)

What I really wanted, back in December of last year, was a nice, no-messing, Beaumes de Venise, preferably the sort that comes in a pleasingly lumpy bottle with drinking instructions on the back. Nice colour, goes with anything, you get a full bottleload (none of this pixie half stuff), I've had it before.

Oddbins, as it transpired, didn't have it. But I was there on a mission - to get the booze in for Christmas - so I bought what the guy behind the counter wanted me to buy, the Rutherglen, and the rest is history. With hindsight, what I should have done was walk out of Oddbins, go to the nearest supermarket and see if they had the Beaumes de Venise; but inertia and a desire to get the transaction over with and get back to the endless night of present-wrapping, held me at Oddbins, and, and, and.

Only now I will have to go to the supermarket, not least because they're still in business, while Oddbins has become irrelevant: neither top-end specialist, against whose windows PK likes to press his nose; nor pile-'em-high warehouse like Majestic.

In fact, there's something defining about all this. Time has moved on and the Brits are now just about confident enough of their wine to be able to face down a typical Waitrose selection without panicking; they don't need borderline encouragement from a mildly implausible shop assistant to help them pick a bottle costing £5, or even £11; and if they do want their hands held, they can go somewhere really chi-chi and buy a case for £250.

Has the world just become smaller and more impoverished as a consequence? I can't say it has. Indeed my only regret is that I still have a third of half a bottle of the wretched Rutherglen, looking at me with gummy reproach every time I open the fridge door.

I know! I'll add it to some yoghurt and call it crème brûlée!


Wednesday 11 May 2011

Rosé wines - Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare & Chateau Guiot

This is about frivolity, about fun, about al fresco living. Yes, it’s about rosé wine.

Rosé wine is a choice of lifestyle, as much as palate. It is wine which has a time and a place. That time is between 12 noon and 8pm. Any later, and wine should really be red. (Any earlier, and you should really not be sneaking out of rehab in order to down it.) And that place is outdoors.

CJ said some frankly uncalled-for things last year  about a bottle of rosé, including the fact that “It had a physical presence at the table, like a large sweaty, pink, and yet quite cold, man.” Perhaps it is my own, inherently more elegant personality speaking here, but if a bottle of rosé does have a physical presence at one’s table, surely it could be that of a lady, enrobed in linen of a pale salmon hue, cool beneath the summer sun? Am I wrong to think of Audrey Hepburn here?

For what it’s worth, here is my own quintessential observation about rosé wine – it succeeds because it looks more frivolous than red, and tastes more frivolous than white. It is a brilliant drink on its own, as its sweeter, fruit flavours can compete with food. And its sheer presence on an outdoor table typifies light summer conversation.

When anyone tells me that they don’t like rosé wine, I try to introduce them to the Vin Gris de Cigare, from the Bonny Doon winery in California. In London, this is not easy to do; when I have found single bottles for sale, it has been at unusual outlets for about £13 – Selfridges (!) currently have it for a very unfrivolous £22.99 – but usually it only appears on the wine list of clued-up restaurants. I think it’s an instant recommendation that I first discovered this wine at Clarke’s, and have subsequently drunk it before meals at Boundary. It’s currently on the list at The Ivy,  at a troubling £45.50.  (Yes, I do eat out a bit. Someone once said of me, “He’s a man who knows his way around a restaurant menu”, but rightly or wrongly I took that as a compliment, and not a suggestion that I am a fat bastard.)

As befits a lifestyle choice, this wine begins as a conversation piece; a Vin Gris is a rosé wine made from red wine grapes; and the Cigare refers to cigar-shaped alien craft which were banned by decree, back in 1954, from landing in the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. (Randall Grahm, the vineyard’s idiosyncratic founder, has “landed” in their patch to such effect he was nicknamed the Rhone Ranger.)

At the risk of boring American readers, Bonny Doon was among the first Californian vineyards to embrace Rhone varietals. Their Vin Gris de Cigare is a blend of 71% grenache and 2% mourvèdre, with a dash of white wine (16% roussanne and 11% grenache blanc) – not, as they admit, something which would be done in the Rhone itself. But the result is the most exciting rosé wine I have ever tasted; pale in colour, crisp and light on the palate, yet with complex fruity and floral notes. It’s refreshing and bright, yet with those gorgeous sweet flavours of summer fruits; a wine to drink on its own, rather than with food. Add in the fact that it’s a talking point, and what better possible kick-off could you have for a convivial summer lunch?

But as I say, I find it a hard wine to track down in London. (Suggestions very welcome in Comments…) The best alternative I have found is the rosé from Chateau Guiot. Again, a combination of Rhone varietals (Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault) give this an interesting complexity; red berries, watermelon, summer fruits and flowers, all above a nicely taut base. Terrific value at £6 a bottle from Majestic, and the label looks serious enough to put on a nicely laid garden table. (I know, I know, but you can’t really decant rosé, and who wants to spoil the look of a sophisticated lunch with a hideous bottle?)  

Light is not always inferior to heavy, or indeed to dark. Like the photography of Elliott Erwitt,  or the writing of Alan Bennett, rosé wine can be life-enhancing without being sombre. We need not take rosé wine too seriously; but that’s not to say that it doesn’t have a role in life.


Wednesday 4 May 2011

Great Wine Moments In Movie History - Bullitt (1968)

You have to focus on Bullitt pretty hard to spot its wine moment, I'll grant you. You have to want to see it. In fact, to be perfectly honest, it helps if you freeze-frame it on your home video and pore obsessively over the sequence where Lieutenant Frank Bullitt goes and has dinner at the preposterously-named Coffee Cantata restuarant (an actual place) in San Francisco.

Only then do you stand a real chance of discerning the instant where a wine waiter walks behind Lt. Bullitt, going from right to left of the frame, bearing a tray of drinks which are presumably meant to be wine. One hesitates to say conclusively that it is wine because although there are five or six half-full glasses on the waiter's tray, plus a possibly-stoppered but apparently label-free bottle, what's in them looks like Ribena or cherryade, or possibly red diesel, depending. The stuff is far too brightly transparent, with a horrible ruby-pinkness (perhaps the Technicolor, there), somehow made worse by the camp implausibility of the waiter doing the carrying.

This walk-on sports a supertidy Martin Scorsese beard plus collar and tie, uneasily contrasting with a bead necklace/Mandala chain round his neck to denote some kind of hippy partiality, but either way he looks wrong. And if he looks wrong (one instinctively feels), then what he's carrying must be wrong, too.

Not that Lt. Bullitt cares. He just angles himself into his seat at the table, from where he subjects his girlfriend (played by the worryingly beautiful Jacqueline Bisset) to a succession of quizzical, potent, glances. Meanwhile, a jazz quartet (real group, Meridian West) fires up and starts noodling away at some deliriously po-faced Jazz Flute music. A minute passes, and it's over. Everything about it, like everything else in the wonderfully lean Bullitt, does its bit and then makes way for the next piece of the story.

So, why the wine? After all, it passes in the blink of an eye, and the next really prominent drink you see is a glass of milk, being consumed with every sign of enjoyment by the Lieutenant. And when I first saw the film, when it came out, in the cinema, I must have been all of eleven, and not in any position to have any feelings towards wine, or Jazz Flutes, or anything even marginally sophisticated. I was there for the shoot-outs and the peerless car chase.

But eleven is an age when you are on the threshold of that larger understanding of the world about you; when adult things start to acquire a chimerical significance; when, for reasons you can't begin to articulate, that otherwise tiresome scene in the Coffee Cantata has a resonance which becomes clearer over time - the studied easiness of grown-up people in a trendy restaurant; the presence of Jacqueline Bisset; the glimpse of that drink which up to now has seemed bafflingly unpalatable but which is clearly a key component in this slinky new world.

Until I went back and checked, I would have sworn that Bullitt actually consulted the wine list and was about to opt for a nice Californian Zinfandel. But then that's what happens when the fuddled desires of youth get entangled with the consolations of middle-age.