Wednesday 29 June 2011

Just looking: the joy of wine browsing

There is a nearby wine merchant posh enough to have an ampersand in its name. The manager has the physique of those nourished without a concern for cash, contained within an inevitable striped shirt. He sweeps out from behind the counter to intercept visitors, with an extraordinary combination of the grovelling of Uriah Heep and the swagger of a Pall Mall club porter (“Are you entitled to be here, sir?”)  And before one can orientate oneself between the Bordeaux and the bargain bins, he asks: “Can I help you?”

No. You cannot help me. I am not looking for anything specific; I am browsing. I do not need to be monitored like a potential shoplifter, and I certainly do not wish to be escorted around the shelves to the accompaniment of a running commentary. There may be a purchase somewhere in the offing, but at the moment, thank you very much, I am just looking.

What is the point (CJ will demand) of “just looking” at wines that are created in order to drink? 

Well, first, an education. Have you ever compared the colour of five vintages of Chateau d’Yquem? Did you know they make half-bottles of Chateau Lynch-Bages? Have you noticed how the Rothschilds emulate the style of the Lafite label on their lesser wines? Or the obscure wines which carry in small type the names of winemakers like Mouiex and Chapoutier? These are all things I have learnt through browsing.

I have remembered more about the relative prices of wines, regions and vintages by browsing than I ever have from lists. Somehow the visual element of a label, on a bottle, in a store registers those things more clearly in my mind.

Browsing gives you a good indication of the nature of a merchant. The presence of one or two great wines on their shelves establishes benchmarks, of price, good taste, long-standing and industry connections, which enable you to put the rest of their offering into perspective. One of the sure signs of the collapse of Oddbins was the absence of any recognisable wines in their shops.

And then there is an almost emotional element to browsing – imagining the wine, the flavour, the occasion. Simply being in the presence of wines you are trying to understand, may never be able to afford, and sometimes find it hard to believe even exist. Have you actually seen a bottle of Screaming Eagle? Or a 1961 claret? People thrill to First Editions not because they want to read the contents, but because that’s how the book first appeared. Surely wine’s even better, because every vintage is a first and only edition.

There are plenty of things people simply look at, without ever using them for their intended purpose. No-one spends their coin collection. People wander around commercial art galleries without the intention (or indeed the wealth) to buy the items on display. Secondhand bookshops depend upon browsing; and people flick happily through the racks in record shops without anyone feeling the need to offer fatuous advice. (“Looking for a record beginning with B then, sir?”)

I am not a timewaster; except in the sense that the only person’s time I am wasting is my own. I won’t waste the staff’s time, because I don’t need to occupy their time. So if you happen to recognise yourself as the chap who runs Pompous & Disdain (Wine Merchants), may I suggest (ever so ‘umbly) that the phrase “Let me know if you need any help…” is much better. I will indeed let you know, and may then actually buy something.

But sometimes it’s hard. On my recent trip to Paris I made a pilgrimage to Les Caves d’Augé.  Opened in 1850, it’s the oldest wine store in Paris, and was Proust’s local. I’ve always loved the French for window-shopping - lécher les vitrines or literally, to lick the windows – and frankly that’s about all one can afford to do in Paris these days. But in Augé, it’s actually quite hard even to browse. It’s two wonderful old, crowded rooms, each piled to the ceiling with dusty bottles, like being in someone’s actual cellar. The phrase “kid in a sweetshop” comes to mind, and any parent knows just how long that child will take to make up its mind.

But the staff hover expectantly behind you, watching every move as you shuffle between the cases. Even hiding behind the language barrier isn’t enough to dispel their attention. No, I am not going to lift that bottle of Ausone 2005 at 1380 and give it a shake. Like saintly relics, it’s enough just to look, to revel in the presence. Leave me alone!

I began to think my experience with the shelves of the Monoprix supermarket would be the most enlightening bit of wine browsing Paris would offer. But then I passed La Maison des Millesimes,  offering a truly spectacular collection of Bordeaux. The shop is off-puttingly bling, but my desire to just see such wonderful vintages overcame its froideur. However, when I shrugged off the inevitable offer of help in my poor French, the salesman responded in conversational English; it turned out he was a young Yorkshireman, who responded to the presence of a genuine wine enthusiast even if I couldn’t afford their spectacular wines.

“Look at this!” he said conspiratorially, and pulled open a drawer to reveal a 1947 Sauternes, its wine the colour of honey, its label held on with clingfilm. We stood there for a moment, just looking at it together, grinning. Just looking.

And then I left.


Friday 24 June 2011

Sediment: Best New Wine Blog 2011? Tempus fugit...

So, Finalists in the Wine Blog Awards! Made it into the Best New Wine Blog category! Time for a celebration, then. Always a problem…

For CJ, any sparkling wine occasion is now another opportunity to offload some of his shoddy Cava. As he explained, the only way to make this drinkable is to lower its temperature virtually to freezing point. This renders its consumption similar to that of a Pentonville cocktail, the drink served to unpopular prisoners containing crushed glass. And many is the evening in CJ’s kitchen punctuated by the soft crumpf, not of a distantly torched car, nor of the combi boiler igniting, but of the contained explosion of another forgotten bottle of Cava within his freezer.

For PK, even celebration is surrounded by the usual sociological anxieties. It is almost painful for him to remove any bottle from his cellar, let alone a bottle of champagne. Of course, being PK, the champagne has to be Winston Churchill’s Pol Roger – not actually Winston Churchill’s, but you know what we mean. And it has to be opened in the correct manner, holding the cork with the left hand and twisting the bottle with the right, emitting the gentle pfft which he insists he was told should, successfully executed, be the sound of a duchess farting.

Both learnt how to celebrate outside the Examination Schools in Oxford, too many years ago, when those leaving their Finals were greeted like Formula One racing drivers with a veritable monsoon of champagne. Such celebrations are now banned; in fact, students are forbidden even to carry past Schools any thing or substance which they might “throw, pour, spray or apply”. Oh, but we know how to apply champagne…

However, the moment of celebration has not quite arrived – because the voting is still going on, but closes on Monday, and we need your vote. If you do enjoy Sediment, and think we deserve to win this award, please do go here before Monday 27th and vote for us in category 7. Time, like CJ's Cava,  is finally running out.

Whatever the outcome, thank you for all the kind congratulations and comments. Either way, the results in a month’s time will be a champagne occasion. As Churchill said, in victory you deserve it – in defeat you need it.

 CJ & PK

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Is Sediment the Best New Wine Blog 2011?

We’re dead chuffed – which, in our “distinctly British sensibility” (Snooth) means we’re surprised, delighted and rather proud – to be a finalist in the 2011 Wine Blog Awards

Sediment is one of six finalists in the Best New Wine Blog category. To reach the shortlist with our somewhat idiosyncratic approach to wine writing is great; to win would be terrific.

The final decision will be made by a combination of public vote and judges’ verdicts – and so we’re nervously asking if you, our followers, could possibly, if you feel it’s appropriate, hem, hem…vote for us.

We’ve received plenty of comments during our first year, from “Droll, funny and very, very good” (thank you, Tai-Ran), and “work of genius, chaps” (Alex), to “What a ridiculous blog post, total lack of understanding of how the industry operates at the moment and clueless as to what was in that bottle you consumed.” (Anonymous).

Joe @suburbanwino was kind enough to comment “Ha! Love it. I'm quick to pick on folks who give tasting notes... unless they're clever, witty, or extraordinarily well-written (these fit that bill).”

We do hope that (apart from Anonymous, obviously) you all enjoy Sediment’s approach to wine – if so, perhaps you could visit and place a vote for us in Category 7? You can vote in as many or as few categories as you wish.

Many thanks for your support,


Friday 17 June 2011

Tesco Famille Skalli Corbières 2006

 Low cunning landed this one as part of a special-offer mixed case of six reds: something around £30 the lot, so I got two cases, and, unlike the Tesco Cava catastrophe at Christmas, they arrived on the nail, no fuss or confusion. Containing a couple of bottles of Skalli Corbières 2006: which averages out at a fiver for something with a vintage. I mean, it's five years old! We don't normally get anything this antique unless it's a birthday or a wedding.

So I unpack the Corbières and contemplate it. Clearly, special treatment is needed for this proud creature (it's even got a cork, a proper one, with the corporate logo printed on it) so, special like, I forgo the faithful Duralex and dust down the Paris goblets so despised by PK. I place the bottle in the centre of the kitchen table. I admire its very slightly tapering flanks and handsome proportions. I squint at the label as if it is a precision tool.

But I am nervous. Why? Because for this encounter, I feel I must nerve up and consider the grog I am drinking, rather than merely neck it. And in order to consider it, I must acquire a language in which to frame my thoughts. I won't go down the rocky road of Whereof I cannot speak thereof I must remain silent, but at the very least, reflective experience demands an inner articulation, and that means words.

Which glances back to PK's preceding entry. He was complaining in his high-handed manner about the tendency of wine writers to address their readers as if they were lusty stevedores, forever glugging and quaffing their wines; and he's got a point. Glugging and quaffing not only infantilise the reader, they suggest a terrible lack of nerve on the part of the writer. They are as unnecessary as they are self-defeating.

On the other hand, self-consciously accessible wine writers have got a job on their hands, given that most of the time wine writing attracts pretension at a rate only equalled by ballet and contemporary art. At random, from across the internet: 'It just doesn't have the spark, the informal elegance, or the mid-palate depth that I associate with Les Granges at this age'; 'A chiselled Sancerre'; 'On the palate, yes, it was rustic, but it had great purity of fruit'; 'I felt I needed to re-associate myself with some of the great white grapes'; 'As befits a lifestyle choice, this wine begins as a conversation piece'.

The last quote, incidentally, came from the normally level-headed PK himself in a recent love-letter to some rosé: there you go.

I've always admired the middle-class French, who, in my limited experience of these things, talk seriously and pragmatically about wine, but confine themselves to three narrowly functional headings: Is it nice to drink? Will it keep? What's good to eat with it? This makes sense. Anglo-Saxons, by way of contrast, seem unable to stop themselves from coming over all F. Scott Fitzgerald the moment they pull the cork. If I were less fingers and thumbs about my tannins and my acidity, about my floral notes and my minerality (whatever that is), perhaps I'd join in and try and make the rococo lexicon of wine appreciation my own. But for now I feel as if I'm trying to speak a made-up language whose usefulness has yet to be categorically identified: Esperanto, in fact.

So. The Corbières. With deep misgivings I pour a bit of the wine out and frown at it, before swirling it round and lowering my nose into the goblet for a deep inhalation. I then turn to what I hilariously refer to as my tasting notes and force myself to write down what I think I have just experienced.

In the smell department, I write Blackberry, pepper, caramel, rubber sheeting, cardboard?? and demerera sugar. I now have no idea what I meant by these attributes. They contained some kind of chimerical sense at the moment I commited them to paper, but what, really, do I mean by blackberry? Can I really summon up the remembered taste of a blackberry? Do I even know what a blackberry tastes like, without a garnish of crumble topping and custard? And how does it fit in with the cardboard? What sort of cardboard, anyway? Packing case or formal invitation? And sugar and rubber sheeting?

I know what I'm doing, of course. I'm aping that professional garrulity which infects wine critics, that compulsion to daisychain characteristics together to indicate a) the complexity of the drink b) the superspecific sophistication of the drinkers' response to it. And you know what? It is kind of fun, it is an indulgence, riddling yourself for ways to name the tastes that skip across your tongue like jaywalkers in traffic. But what does it mean?

I quaff some, or swig it. This is a test I can neither fail nor pass. It is as definitive as a burping competition. Nevertheless, I call it jammy with (insofar as I understand these terms) balanced acidity and tannins. Finish is protracted, which is a good sign. I look at the notes. I look at the drink. Do I feel that I've got to know it better? Was it worth the extra input? What would a middle-class Frenchman say?

It comes down to this. It was extremely tasty; it hung around in the mouth longer than the stuff I habitually drink; it now costs £10 a bottle if you buy it from Tesco outside of a mixed case, so I won't be getting any more for a bit, if ever.

Which is what I meant to say, all along.


Thursday 9 June 2011

Quaffing and glugging – Tsantali Cabernet Sauvignon

Am I a fool to want wine drinking to be something of a sophisticated activity? Was I naive to aspire, for all of those years, to a cellar, a carafe, a smidgen of knowledge and an appreciative sip? I only ask, because it seems that, even in relatively upmarket UK publications, drinking wine is now frequently described using two verbs – “quaff” and “glug” – which are redolent of frankly oafish consumption.

The Telegraph recommend “a glug of vino”. In the Independent, you can “glug” some natural wine, while a  Cape blend is described as “an affordable glugger”. The FT called respected winemaker Michel Chapoutier “quaffable and quotable”. The Spectator, usually a bastion of tradition, refers to a Chardonnay as “a real glugger”.  And the Guardian says that “Sometimes all you want is something light, crisp and quaffable” – well, speak for yourself.

(There is even an ugly misspelling of a wine site called Kwoff, edited by the Kwoff Boys. But they are Australian.)

There are other equally distasteful terms around; Sediment had to take the saintly Victoria Moore to task, for “swilling” and “sluicing” her summer wines in the Telegraph, which hardly makes them sound desirable. But “quaff” and “glug” are particularly widespread.

And now Waitrose, perhaps England’s most upmarket supermarket chain, have trumped the lot. In the May issue of their Waitrose Kitchen print magazine, Olly Smith manages both. In a single issue, he directs us to “glug” one wine, and to “quaff” another.

What would be the food writing equivalent? “Wolf this down for lunch”? “Scoff this one for supper”? One really can't see The Blessed Nigel  ending a recipe with “Great to guzzle with friends”. But are the guests eating food any less oafish than the guests drinking wine?

Presumably these writers want to convey some kind of Falstaffian, Merrie Men bonhomie, with everyone waving goblets and tankards – but this is not the raucous scenario I believe Mrs K (as My Affianced has now become) has in her mind’s eye when we invite people round for dinner. Would you welcome a guest, and ask, “Are you quaffing tonight?” Or pour a glass and say, “Fancy a glug?” Our guests neither quaff nor glug; they sip and savour their wine, as they discuss high-minded matters and exchange witty repartee. (Although sometimes CJ does visit…)

Perhaps “glugging” is also supposed to echo the sound of carefree pouring, like an arsonist waving a bottle of petrol about a room? Not in our house, I’m afraid, where guests tend to prefer their wine in their glass rather than their lap.

Easy drinking, that’s what these writers want to suggest – and I’m afraid that’s another of my bêtes noires. When is drinking not easy, for goodness sake? It’s a reflex action! If you’re finding that a wine is “difficult” drinking, frankly you don’t need a wine critic, you need a doctor.

“Quaffing” often has a critical tone; celebrities or rich bastards always “quaff” champagne, while proles like us simply drink it. Deconstruct that, Mr Waitrose. But I thought, in the interests of research, I should at least try to “glug” a wine.

I therefore took a large mouthful of air in with my wine, and swallowed the lot with a kind of reverse belch. It certainly made an unattractive noise which could be described as “glug”, rather like the final emptying of a sink.

However, the result was also that a painful bolus of air descended my oesophagus with agonising slowness. This is what I imagine it must be like to swallow a golf ball. If any wine critic seriously thinks such “glugging” is to be encouraged, I suggest they try this painful activity for themselves, and then think again.

So what happens when, instead of quaffing or glugging, you simply drink one of these wines? In a civilised manner, slowly and considerately, without sonic accompaniment from either bottle or digestive system.

One of Waitrose’s vulgarly described offerings is the Tsantali Cabernet Sauvignon. This comes from the Greek region of Halkidiki, which I can’t help thinking sounds like something R2D2 would say. A Greek Cabernet Sauvignon – when CJ heard what I was drinking, he said “I admire your moxie, kid.”

Whereas Olly Smith said, “Quaff it with steak, chops and top-quality bangers,”. Not sausages, you note, or even loukaniki; but “bangers”...

Well, it’s a competent, straightforward Cabernet Sauvignon; that slightly burnt aroma, but a bit flat in the mouth; a little brief resonance on the palate… but then gone. No richness, no complexity, no grip. Perfectly OK, and with a hefty 14.5% alcohol, which will assist the goblet-waving; but for £9, I’m afraid I expect something a little more memorable.

But perhaps this is what it’s really all about?  Wine for people who don’t want a stimulated palate getting in the way, slowing down the process of swallowing in large draughts (as Dr Johnson defined the verb “to quaff”)? In which case, why not go the whole hog, and provide alcohol via an intravenous drip?

I shall not, in the foreseeable, be filling my guests’ glasses with a hearty “There you go, quaff that!” Nor inviting Olly Smith to demonstrate his glugging technique over our sink. Nor, indeed, purchasing another bottle of the unmemorable...what was it called?


Thursday 2 June 2011

Marks & Spencer House Red - and the London International Wine Fair

This is more like it. I'm at a petrol station in Sunbury-on-Thames and realise that I've forgotten to buy some wine for the evening. But this petrol station has, as part of its remit, an outlet of M & S Foods - i.e. a micromart with the usual grab'n'run longlife chocolate chip cookies, lonely man chicken casseroles, carrot sticks, yoghurts. And wine. Petrol and wine: the world in liquid form.

And some House Red for under £5 a bottle! It's all I can do not to cry out loud. I get two bottles, pay up, drive, chinking, back home, inspect my haul. And I've got a class product: sensible screw-top closure, quietly bon goût label (see the appropriately tiny image), M & S branding for quality reassurance. Yes, when I open it up it smells like a hardware store on a hot day and makes my eyes hurt, but no matter because I give it half an hour in a wide-to-the-air Duralex tumbler and then sip it cautiously, and it's fine, better than fine for £5, spicy, slightly nutty, as PK would put it, a lot less sandpapery than first impressions would have suggested, not exactly sagging under the weight of its own complexity, a bit short on narrative, but come on.

All, in other words, is well, but: try and find this stuff online and it is only grudgingly that M & S admit to its existence; and at the time of writing, claimed to be out of stock altogether. Have they really run out? Was the selection in the Sunbury petrol station so behind the times that it dated back to 2010? The thing is, it was so just about drinkable, so on the cusp of pleasantness, that I'd like to get some more. But I am, as it turns out, caught in a conceptual trap in which the supermarket (M & S) hooks me with its apparent superabundance and ubiquity, before witholding the prize and leaving me stranded.

Which ties in (really it does) with a trip I made to the London International Wine Fair a couple of weeks ago.

I learned almost nothing from this for several reasons. First, PK wasn't there with me to explain things (claimed to be too busy), and there was a lot that needed explaining, given the immensity of the show, mile after mile of superpotent trade stands, all the famous brand names, plus many that weren't (Wines of Oregon; the Romanian Wine Stand), plus so much tasting wine that my liver actually revolted slightly at the prospect.

Worse, without PK to provide cover, I was forced to talk, one-to-one, to the various wine-makers and retailers. This very quickly led me into realms of gibberish in which I expatiated about elasticity and profondeur and realised that I was going to have to stop drinking altogether before I blew my cover (notionally there as a consultant, according to the pass I wore proudly on my neck lanyard) and as a consequence only got through about two glasses' worth of wine, some of it from Romania, some of it from Oregon, some of it from neigbouring Washington State, all of it beyond my powers to critique sensibly.

So with a growing sense of loss and failure, I flopped into a seat at a wine professionals' seminar, in which a number of big shots were trying to answer the big question, Europe: Is it Doomed?

To which the answer broadly seemed to be yes, with certain nervous provisos. What innovations would the panel like to see? someone asked. A guru from the spirits industry vouchsafed the mildly insane proposition that square bottles would be the way to go; someone else said that thinner glass was where it was at. It was only when the man from Tesco leaned forward to make the point that everything, absolutely everything, now lay in the hands of the supermarket chains that I paid any attention.

Because he was right, of course. The average British wine punter has now advanced just far enough in his drinking career to know one end of a bottle from another (as I was going on about last time). But where does he go after that? Who educates him up to the next stage? Tesco is who - as well as Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Asda, Morrisons, M & S Food, and so on. And the man from Tesco knew that this was his sacred duty and that if there was to be any innovating, he was the one to do it.

But supermarkets build their reputations on consistency and predictability. Wine tends not to be these things, or at least not as often as one would like; if it is as dependable as a tin of beans or a bottle of shampoo, if it's one of those industrial branded drinks, then it may not be much fun to consume. How are the supermarkets going to square this circle - claiming to offer the same nice wine, week in, week out, in the knowledge that wine is a lot more freakish than the supermarket ethos allows for? Is the next phase in our education all about living with uncertainty, about having to react to constant change? Is that the one big innovation the Tesco guy had in mind? And is that what M & S are trying covertly to tell me, by leading me all the way up the garden path with their bearable, tasty, own-brand House Red, only to cut off the supply just when I've got a taste for it?