Wednesday 27 July 2011

Enjoying wine James Bond 007 style - Three Cape Ladies, Warwick Estate

James Bond was originally not that much of a wine drinker. Spirits, cocktails, yes; the ubiquitous Martini, and of course Champagne – but the writer Cyril Ray, who worked with Bond's creator Ian Fleming, once said that Fleming “knew nothing about wine except what he was told when he rang up friends in the wine trade, and then usually got it wrong.”

Perhaps that’s why in both books and films Bond stuck primarily to the irreproachable Chateau Mouton-Rothschild – a 1947 with Goldfinger, and half a bottle On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a 1934 ordered by M in Moonraker, and a ’55 in Diamonds are Forever – where, of course, Bond unveiled the assassin Wint because the man didn’t know that Mouton-Rothschild is a claret. And, fitting to the perpetrator of such a crime, killed him.

(Frankly, for using a gas ejector to open the bottle, he deserved to be shot…)

But now, the American author Jeffery Deaver has written a new James Bond novel, Carte Blanche. And appropriately, just as the 1950s Bond knew all about cocktails, the contemporary Bond is something of a wine connoisseur. The question is whether the wines he enjoys today fit the James Bond we have always aspired to be. After all, like most English men of a certain age, I have always felt something of the Bond about myself…

In Carte Blanche, Bond is invited to lunch at the Travellers Club on Pall Mall, by a solid man in his mid-sixties, identified only as the ‘Admiral’. (He later turns out to have been M.) Deaver has certainly got the right venue for such a diplomatic assignation, and I can vouch for the descriptions of both the Club and its typical member. But the wine?

Menus descended. Bond ordered halibut on the bone, steamed, with Hollandaise, boiled potatoes and grilled asparagus. The Admiral selected the grilled kidney and bacon, then asked Bond, ‘Wine?’
‘Yes, please.’
‘You choose.’
‘Burgundy, I should think,’ Bond said. ‘Côte de Beaune? Or a Chablis?’
‘The Alex Gambal Puligny, perhaps?’ the waiter suggested.

Fools! It should be Puligny-Montrachet – no-one who knew their Burgundy would omit the legendary suffix. Bond would surely delight in correcting the waiter, know that both of the two ‘t’s are silent, and suavely order it from him properly. Then kill him.

Except, he wouldn’t order it. Not just because it’s a poor pairing with grilled kidney and bacon. Nor because it has an ugly modern label.  But because it’s not on the wine list at the Travellers Club. Indeed, I was told, “Regarding the wine, I’m afraid no-one ever heard of it being served in the club house.”

So that’s the end of that one. James Bond would not be drinking that particular wine at the Travellers, and so nor shall I. (Although, if you are ever in the fortunate position yourself of ordering a white Burgundy at the club, may I suggest the Meursault 2002 Cuvée Tete de Murger, Domaine Patrick Javillier, whose flavour has been rather poetically described as “haunting”…)

Bond eventually heads off to South Africa to pursue the usual shenanigans – which, as he wines and dines a female executive, start with an order of a Rustenberg Peter Barlow Cabernet 2005.

This is a Bordeaux-style red, possibly a little young, but given all the government cutbacks, at around one-tenth of the price, an understandable substitute for someone whose expense account can surely no longer bear the cost of Mouton-Rothschild.

However, going from one extreme to the other, I think we have to ask whether James Bond would order a wine which is sold in Tesco.  Last seen in a wire basket alongside a special offer meat pie for one? Is that going to impress the woman he is trying to seduce? Though that outcome is never really in doubt, given that her name is Felicity Willing…

Willing by name and, as it proves, by nature. And she is responsible for the third of the wines he supposedly enjoys. When she later visits him for a return match, as it were, a wine bottle appeared from her shoulder bag – vintage Three Cape Ladies, a red blend from Muldersvlei on the Cape. Bond knew its reputation. He took out the cork and poured. (Good to see he’s mastered that tricky sequence!) They sat on the sofa and sipped. “Wonderful,” he said.

This wine is extremely difficult to buy in London by the bottle; I have to thank the enormously helpful Handford Wines on the Old Brompton Road, a lovely, traditional wine merchant whose knowledge, service and sheer Englishness would surely have merited Bond’s own custom.

Bond’s “wonderful” is not the most precise tasting note I have come across. Nor is it, in this case, the most accurate. This is an immensely muscular wine, dark purple in colour with a hot, foresty bouquet. Perhaps it’s been whacked around its privates with a knotted rope.

It’s dense, almost cloying in the mouth, dominated by cabernet sauvignon but with just a little edge from pinotage and syrah in the blend, and a long, echoing finish. And it’s so heavy and powerful, with 14.5% alcohol, it really needs food to carry it down. It has the lumbering strength of Moonraker’s villain Jaws, rather than the finesse of Bond himself.

Bear in mind that this wine is not, as the overexcited PRs suggest, Bond’s own choice of seduction wine, but his Willing partner’s. Nevertheless, Bond deems it “wonderful”, and like him it is ruthlessly effective. Shortly after sipping it, He kissed her and slowly began to undo the buttons… I’m sure Handford Wines will help anyone wishing to recreate at least the sipping part of this scene.

So 007 could not have savoured the “Puligny” as described. The Rustenberg Peter Barlow is certainly appropriate in both taste and looks (nice traditional label), but may be too commonplace. He finds Three Cape Ladies more “wonderful” than I, but it certainly proves seductive. Hmmm.

Bond’s own London club, Blades, has a knowledgeable wine waiter in Grimley. Faced with a choice of wines in Moonraker, Bond says “Perhaps I could leave it to Grimley?”

Yes, perhaps he should.


(“Who? Kill him…”)

Wednesday 20 July 2011

A Tale Of Two Tastings - Château la Croix des Pins/Domaine Les Yeuses

One: So here we are, back in the South of France, just under the shoulder of Mt Ventoux, and our chums say, Let's go to this cave, they're advertising Champagane, no, not méthode Champenoise but actual Champagne, so we say, Fantastic, we haven't been to a cave since almost this time last year, with you, as it happens, and off we go, down a deeply rutted French track, throwing up dust and gravel, sweltering slightly insanely in the heat, before drawing up in front of a nobly-proportioned but apparently derelict château with an industrial crane sticking out of the top -

But what do you know? This is a work in progress: and yes, as we step over some power cables and a length of hosepipe, it turns out that the Château la Croix des Pins is indeed in business, and has set out its stall in a freshly-painted antechamber, formerly the private chapelle of the château - with, as a token of lingering piety, a couple of plaster seraphim on the wall behind the cash register.

What's more, the instant we clear our throats, a very soignée young woman bursts out of a side door and starts flogging us the Château la Croix des Pins range of Ventoux-flavoured wines, plus the Champagne they seem to have the concession for down here, plus some gluey-looking stuff from Tunisia. She tells us a tale of decline and rebirth: the previous owner of the winery dies, the house starts to fall down, some bright young gunslingers with a hand in other wine-producing regions (hence the heterogeneous mixture) take over, they rebuild and re-invigorate the brand, and their stuff costs 7 and upwards a bottle. Her rhetoric is so seamless and so determined that we lapse into an admiring stupor as she collects more glassware, plus a bucket, plus more wines which we taste, repeatedly extending our glasses for a refill.

Actually, she (correctly) identifies me as the lustreless goob of the party and soon stops my refills, concentrating her energies on our markedly smarter friends. Who, in due course buy some red and some Champagne, and we all go home. And the red (not that it's my place to criticise) tastes fine in what I now think of as a light, Grenache-y Ventoux way, nothing to make you tear your shirt off in ecstasy, but fine.

Two: I wander into my dreary local Majestic Wine Warehouse. I am the only person there (a Monday morning, admittedly, and raining) but I am mercifully left to dicker around with the tasting wines, including a 2000 Chinon, a wine about which I know less than nothing, and which I consume in kingly solitude, noting that it is (a) pretty nice and (b) too expensive. At no point does anyone attempt to tell me the story of the charmless west London shed which Majestic have made their own. Nor does anyone slyly withhold the glassware from me at the tasting stall. There are no soignée young women, just a bloke in fishpaste-coloured shorts. Mildly glowing with Chinon, and glad to have been left alone, I scale down my pretensions and buy some 2009 Domaine Les Yeuses Merlot/Syrah Pays D'Oc.

This reveals itself later in the day to have a nose full of tar and tobacco, a mild clusterbomb effect on the palate and gums, and a pleasingly cough-mixture finish. In other words, at £7.49 a bottle (including discounts) it is approximately £2 over my Platonic price point, but still worth it.

The problem: insofar as there is a problem, it lies back in France, in their interpretation of tasting, the dégustation et vente you see all over the wine-growing regions (an index of PK's grandeur, by the way: he goes to wineries where you have to pay to get in).

How? Well, I used to cling to the sentimental idea that dégustation et vente allows you to try a wine and meet its producer without the same mercantile pressure that you experience when buying something in a wine shop. Of course, in a cave, there's no escape from being eyeballed by the hungry proprietor, but I still like to imagine it as a meeting of individuals, rather than doomed participants in an ineluctable transaction.

And when we rocked up at Château la Croix des Pins, frankly, I was desperate to buy some drink, any drink, if only because it's a cuddly, touristy thing to do and I wanted that kind of transaction, that escape from the Anglo-Saxon condition, that intimacy (however fake) with the wine-maker.

Instead it became one of those typically French impositions of form over content, in which great attention is paid to the proprieties of the encounter, with marginally less paid to the quality of the product itself. An extension, in fact, of one's experiences of middling, bourgeois French restaurants, with their menus à prix fixes, their stiff and inefficient service, their monotonously indifferent food, their insistence on form. Not that a trip to Château la Croix des Pins is even faintly near as excruciating as having to eat bad French restaurant food. Just that one has this feeling of being simultaneously strongarmed and condescended to - however nice and Frenchified one's hostess is, however much she fans out her fingers and elaborates the magical story of the vineyard - and that one is meant to be grateful for the privilege.

Which leaves one wondering, what is a tasting, a dégustation anyway? Is it a chance to try out new stuff and attempt to talk wine with an expert? Or is that too pitiably naive? Wouldn't it make more sense just to assume that the dégustation isn't really happening and face up to the fact that it's all about the vente and not much else?


Wednesday 13 July 2011

Bolney Dark Harvest – English red wine

We English like to pit ourselves against the odds. Plucky little islanders, rising to a challenge, us against the world, etc etc. And if the odds aren’t quite steep enough, we like to introduce some additional difficulties; like running a marathon, but in a diving suit. So something about the perversity of producing not just a wine, but a red wine, in the English village winery of Bolney, appeals to Sediment's similarly English mentality.

Southern England is now on the cusp of a grape-growing climate, and there have been particular compliments paid recently to English sparkling white wine. But black grapes require greater heat over greater time than white; English red wine is therefore a climatic curiosity like, say, English olives.

Still, overcoming the weather is a national habit; to be quintessentially English, ambitions must have a few further obstacles placed in the way of their possible success. Most of those which follow appear to have been placed there by Bolney themselves. Most raise questions...

First, a little label confusion to baffle the potential customer. I found Dark Harvest amongst the world’s wines on my Waitrose shelf; but side by side were two completely different labels, from the same vintage. The label at the top of this page is rather stylish and elegant in a quiet, classic, serif-font English way – whereas this one  

shrieks amateur craft fair. Did they want a label to dissuade potential purchasers? Why are the two side-by-side on the shelf? I do not know – but only one is fit to grace my dining table. (CJ probably bought the other one…)

Next, I discover that Dark Harvest is not actually on the Bolney website. They offer instead another red wine – similar grapes, similar label – called Lychgate Red.  I e-mailed to ask if they were the same wine, and their PR (!) replied, “the Dark Harvest wine is not available from the vineyard, it is however available from Waitrose stores and online at Waitrose Wine Direct”. Which is not really an answer. But okay, Dark Harvest is the one in Waitrose. Oh, and, I find, in the Eight Bells Village Pub & Restaurant, in… Bolney. Perhaps, in a second vain attempt to hinder wider tasting of Bolney’s produce, they have been hijacking the departing Waitrose lorries.

Now, on the Waitrose back label, it’s suggested that the wine goes well with roast beef. This is a shrewd marketing move for an English red. Unfortunately, that's in complete contrast to Bolney’s own website pairing suggestion for its red wine: serve with salt marsh lamb, quince aioli and wild broccoli.

Are they mad? I could count the number of Englishmen eating quince aioli this Sunday on the fingers of one… finger.

And not even roast lamb, an immensely popular English dish, but salt marsh lamb, an exclusive, seasonal speciality. Narrow the market, why don’t you? (And none of that tame broccoli…)

So they’ve stubbed their English meta-tarsals against climate, naming, labelling and food matching. Finally, like many wineries, Bolney make a little marketing statement about their wines. “Our wines are of slightly lower alcohol content than most other countries,” they say, “and this makes them especially attractive to women and to our younger drinkers – but of course, men enjoy them too!”

Presumably English is the language in Bolney? The statement should either employ an apostrophe, or read “than those of most other countries”; as it stands, we’re comparing wines with countries. 

But anyway, do women find wines of lower alcohol content especially attractive? Why? Why younger drinkers? And what about younger women drinkers, who I see on the streets of Northern England in Police, Action programmes, wearing what appear to be pelmets, and falling off the pavement from alcohol content?

In any case, it is plain wrong – Dark Harvest is 12.5%, an average strength among wines.

Still, at least “men enjoy them too!” Well…

Not this man. Dark Harvest is indeed Dark, almost purple in colour. It has a pungent bouquet, bordering on the urinal, above what I can only describe as farmyard base notes. Is that the Harvest? Rotting in the rain?

I felt it was, strangely, very slightly petillant on the tip of the tongue; and then it flattens out over the mouth. It has a raw, actually slightly bitter flavour, like Biro ink, above flabby fruit. And it leaves behind it, not so much an aftertaste as a residue. I’m sorry – it is really very unpleasant. I actually had to take the taste away, with a glass of proper English red wine – claret.

So, the final obstacle to success. It’s horrible. The amateur craft fair label would have been more appropriate after all. The Eight Bells supportively describes it as "a real stunner" - frankly, only if you were coshed with the bottle.

Why did I go through all that bother? Why bother drinking it? Why bother making it? The only answer is: because we're all English.

I am left with the thought of a greater Englishman, Dr Johnson, who would no doubt lump this stuff in with women preachers and dogs who walk on their hind legs. English red wine: it is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.


Thursday 7 July 2011

Great Wine Moments in Literary History - Brideshead Revisited

There's a scene about half-way through Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisted, in which the hero, Charles Ryder, eats dinner in a Parisian restuarant with the appalling Rex Mottram, a Canadian go-getter whose stupendous worldliness and material omincompetence are only matched by the catastrophic void which is his interior life. Compared to a 'semi-imbecile' by a Catholic clergyman later in the book, Rex is cultureless, soulless and (except when it comes to really big things, like money and a trophy wife) quite without discrimination.

So Ryder (a fastidious, talented, graceful snob, Waugh's fond re-imagining of himself) goes to town. He chooses the restaurant - unshowy but exquisite - orders the food and the drink. The period is some time in the late Twenties/early Thirties: so he calls up a bottle of 1906 Montrachet and a Clos de Bèze 1904. Mottram grumbles away about the aristocratic Marchmain family he's about to marry into, while reckoning that all Ryder's favourite eaterie needs is someone spunky to take an interest and 'Make something of it.'

Ryder dials out and loses himself in his Burgundy, which 'Seemed,' as he says to himself, 'a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his.' 

Well, I don't know about you, but it's somewhere about here that I dial out of Brideshead Revisted : the queasy-making point where wine connoisseurship meets five-star sanctimony.

Brideshead Revisited, as most readers now know, is a Great Bad Book - easily Waugh's greatest commercial success, a huge hit in the United States, and yet so bad that even he disowned it fifteen years after it first came out. Sentimental, overblown and written at a time when most British people, Waugh included, were half-starving, 'The book is infused with a kind of gluttony' - Waugh's words - 'for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.'

On the upside, there is a good deal in it about booze.

Charles Ryder first gets to know the Hon. Sebastian Flyte and Brideshead, the ancestral palace which is his family home, over a picnic whose principal liquid refreshment is a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey - 'Which isn't a wine you've ever tasted,' as Flyte puts it, 'so don't pretend.' Later on, and rather sweetly, Flyte and Ryder explore the contents of the house's great cellars. They have a book of tasting notes; they forgot who's drunk what; they get their glasses muddled up; they get shitfaced. Ryder comes out of it with an appreciation of fine wines, which he then inflicts on Rex Mottram. Sebastian Flyte winds up an alcoholic.

But the alcoholism comes in handy. The other thing everyone knows about Brideshead is that it is a three-hundred-page hymn to Roman Catholicism. Just about everyone in it starts out or ends up as a Catholic, even the sceptical Ryder, seeking comfort at the end in 'An ancient, newly-learned form of words.' Sebastian Flyte, scion of a great recusant family, spends most of his time in the novel failing to live up to the tenets of the Church, before, in the final quarter, turning into a kind of holy pauper or fool - the logical last term of his drink addiction. The booze (and it's not just wine by now, but just about anything he get his hands on) is his particular path to the sacraments, as it strips away his vanity, his sense of self, his anxiety about the world's (or at least his family's) opinion.

In other words, wine is a key expression of the three main themes of the novel: high culture; the Arcadian dream; redemption. 

Which makes it slightly weird that the normally astute Martin Amis, in his critique of Brideshead, picks on Ryder's 'Reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew' in order to give it a kicking: 'Ryder must be a simple soul, by God, to be so elaborately solaced by a glass of wine.' Hard to believe that Amis simply missed the point; more likely he just wanted to trash Waugh's reputation, whatever the circumstances - and (by God) Ryder does come across as the most inordinate ponce, much of the time. 

But the drink, Martin, the drink. Think of the drink. That's what it's all about.