Wednesday 31 August 2011

Judging by appearances – Lafite Rothschild & Los Vascos Grande Reserve

“Only a fool,” said Oscar Wilde, “would not judge by appearances.” Am I right to apply this edict to my wine?

And why not? Who are these fools who say “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? Probably those who then go and buy Harry Potter books with an adult jacket, so that no-one will judge them.

Why do you think that all the books by, say, Dan Brown have essentially the same cover design? The correct answer is not, appropriate as it might be, to illustrate a paucity of creative talent; but to suggest that a customer will be getting more of the same. Have one bestseller, and an author’s entire back catalogue will often be redesigned to echo the cover which everyone knows – just look at David Nicholls’ books now. 

I have always judged by appearances. I remember being introduced to an office newcomer once; my expression must have given me away, because my then boss immediately added, “I’m sure he’ll be wearing a tie when he starts with us.”

“I’m more concerned,” I replied, “About whether he’ll be wearing socks.”

So when people tell me that wine labels don’t matter, it’s what’s inside that the bottle that counts… well.

Can we name any other commercial product where people are advised to ignore its appearance? There are entire agencies out there toiling to create product packaging, wielding terms like “personality”, “brand promise”, “visual platform”and “hierarchy of product communication”, in order to achieve “shelf impact” – and someone’s telling me to ignore it?

No, I am more than happy to admit that the reason I was first drawn to the wine of Los Vascos was its appearance. You only need to look at its label to get a suggestion of its family connection:

And there on the capsule is the Rothschild logo, the five arrows symbolising the five sons of original patriarch Mayer Rothschild, and the magical word, Lafite.

Los Vascos is a Chilean winery, which is indeed run by Lafite Rothschild. Back in the early Nineties, their cabernet sauvignon was something of a rarity in the UK; it cost about £12 a bottle, and the only place you could be sure of buying it was the shop at the Rothschild-owned Waddesdon Manor. I used to buy it as a competent wine which was also a rarity and a talking point. Now they’re producing 300,000 cases a year of their basic cabernet sauvignon, and you can get it in Majestic for £7.99

But this week I picked up a bottle of their Grande Reserve – notice the French title on a Chilean wine – which is a blend of cabernet sauvignon with malbec, syrah and carmenere. I see online that you can get cases for a little over a tenner a bottle, but I was foolish enough to pick it up in my local wine merchant with an ampersand, so it cost me £12.95.

A cynic might suggest that the Rothschilds are simply cashing in on the appeal of Lafite by aping its iconography. But, look at it the other way – would they damage the value of their leading wines by visual association with something that was rubbish?

Their website recommends decanting the wine, which I do. I am not shallow enough to leave the capsule beside the decanter (hem, hem).

And do you know what? It’s gorgeous. It has a musky, tobacco bouquet, and it glides across the palate in that way good cabernet sauvignon does – but then there’s a resonance from the other grapes in the blend, a richness, and a long, dry aftertaste. This is a complex, graceful wine, a beautifully balanced cruiserweight, steelier than a Bordeaux blend but just as clever.

No, of course it’s not Lafite, but it’s good and it’s good value. Not even CJ would expect to get one of the finest wines available to humanity for £12.95.

(Well, actually, he probably would, but we’ll let that pass…)

Whether a label design shrieks of energy or murmurs of elegance really should be an indication of its style – and the appearance of Los Vascos Grande Reserve, with all its suggestion of finesse and class, is entirely appropriate. And you can bring two key elements to your dining table in a single bottle; you not only get a good bottle of wine, but the Lafite Rothschild background provides you with a good conversation as well.

For man looketh on the outward appearance (I Samuel 16.7), and in this case he is right to do so.


Tuesday 23 August 2011

Six Degrees Of Stickiness - Fetzer White Zinfandel Rosé II

1) The White Zinfandel Rosé is still sitting, unfinished, in my fridge, like a sticky pink digit. I can't bring myself to throw it away, but it's been there so long it'll be completely and utterly undrinkable rather than merely undrinkable if I try and drink it now. A tragic waste. I wonder about using it to stew some plums, but what if it ends up as a tragic waste of plums? I keep brooding on the problem.

2) I find a nice old advert for American wines, dating, I'm guessing, from the late Forties. You serve the Wine, it announces, and a grand visit is under way. A sweetly-drawn gouache shows two couples seated round a blazing fire, dainty glasses of red on the occasional table, three of the participants listening raptly to the fourth - a young woman with her back to the viewer, apparently musing, warm and humorous, on Life; or recounting a Wartime anecdote with a happy ending (she nursed the Artilleryman back to health, and look! He's sitting in the wingback chair next to her, and could you tell which of his trousered legs is actually made of aluminium?). It is altogether a civilised, low-testerone encounter (the other male in the picture is a spavined academic type, no threat to the grinning uniped opposite), the women are clearly in charge, the embodiment of the sub-heading - People find there's a friendly, moderate kind of relaxation that most everyone wants today. So what are they drinking? Pictured here is full-bodied, rich red Port. Refreshment wines such as Port and Muscatel are very popular for between-meal serving. So the sweet wine fixation, the Zinfandel crisis, is nothing new, not that I really think of Port as a wine at all, more a liquid in its own peculiar class, somewhere between treacle and fence paint, none the worse for that, but taxonomically distinct. I think we can learn something from this.

3) Although, to be fair, I have been offered both Port and Sauternes as pre-meal drinks at different times in France, so it's not a problem confined to the States.

4) But then again, I once ordered a lobster in Maine, on account of its being a speciality there, and indeed this fabulous lobster, about a foot long and grilled to perfection, was placed in front of me: and it had been drenched in sugary clarified butter, a toxic syrup which made the lobster inedible and which broke my heart for the rest of the day. The rest of the trip, even. In fact I feel a bit weepy just thinking about it.

5) But then again, perhaps the awful Zinfandel has some kind of cultural legitimacy which should make it palatable intellectually if not sensuously. Perhaps it's the grandbastardchild of John Steinbeck's Paisano wine, out of Tortilla Flat. This has been described as smelling of 'Fresh strawberries in that way that strawberry Jello smells before it fully sets' and is drunk by the drunks of Tortilla Flat in prodigious quantities: 'Two gallons is a great deal of wine, even for two paisanos', etc. It may even have a kinship with Wine Spodiodi, as in Kerouac's On The Road (also as in the song, Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee) in which it turns out that Wine Spodiodi is a shot of port, a shot of whisky, followed by another shot of port. 'Nice sweet jacket for all that bad whisky!' as one character puts it.

6) Which means that, conceivably, the Full-bodied, rich red Port being drunk in the gemütlich Calfornian wine ad from the 1940's, is actually Wine Spodiodi, and the encounter is about to turn into surburban orgy, or, possibly, catastrophic crime incident, in which the one-legged Artilleryman, crazed with drunken jealousy, murders the academic, belabouring him with his prosthetic leg. There is only one way to get to the bottom of this. I shall have to buy another bottle of Fetzer White Zinfandel Rosé and make my own accomodation with this disgusting drink.


Tuesday 16 August 2011

A little knowledge: Oddbins' Mâcon-Lugny Eugene Blanc

The English are among the few people who will actually mock someone’s learning. Too clever for his own good. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Know-it-all. Too clever by half.

By embracing a dismissal of all matters vinous beyond price and taste, CJ shrewdly avoids this mockery. I, despite my broad erudition, only plead guilty to a little knowledge of wine myself. How dangerous a thing can that little knowledge possibly be? Well…

You may recall (or, with the wonders of the internet, may now look back upon) my somewhat futile attempt to follow one wine writer’s advice and “befriend a local wine merchant”. My chosen local merchant was an Oddbins – shortly afterwards, the chain went into administration.

My attempts at striking up friendships have often been rebuffed – there are playgrounds, student bars and even people’s dining rooms to which I can never return – and many is the shop where assistants now disappear into the back room muttering “It’s that bloody man again…”. But closing an entire retail chain to avoid me is a little extreme.

However, my local Oddbins remained, to some shabby extent, open. A scrappy handwritten note appeared in the window, explaining that it was now being run by EFB/Whittalls. (In fact this is European Food Brokers, which operates Whittalls, which is trading as Oddbins. A search throws up locations like Halifax, Walsall and Dorking. Hmmm.)

But for weeks and weeks now, it has offered only rubbish wines. I mean real bottom shelf, corner grocer stuff, like Marques de Caceres, Yellowtail, even Blossom Hill – I ask you, Blossom Hill? What is this, a convenience store? Walsall? A Spar?

The shelves have been sparsely stocked, and the simple, bare wood interior of Oddbins, which once presented a charming, rustic simplicity, has had an air of downtown Mogadishu.

Then this week, they put a board outside proudly announcing, “The tide is turning” – and amongst the rubbish, I saw this Mâcon-Lugny in the window, and I thought yes, at last. There, my little learning told me, is a white Burgundy, a wine that could grace my dining table.

And £9 is a good price for a white Burgundy. Perhaps, I thought, this might be a signal to people like myself. Oddbins could be offering good wine again. Or, it’s a bin-end from the old Oddbins, a quality wine being shifted at a bargain price to ease their cashflow, and which passers-by may not notice.

But, given my little knowledge, was I being “too clever by half”?

The wines of the Mâconnais, says my old Sotheby’s guide to classic wines, are “broad, solid structured… with a harmonious balance between lemony fruit and sinewy virtuosity”, an astonishing turn of phrase from David Molyneux-Berry which is as hard to comprehend as it is to pronounce.

What does Oddbins say? I can do no better than show you the back label:

Now, why reduce something to its lowest common denominator? Yes, it is chardonnay; but if you’re selling a Rolls-Royce, you don’t describe it as a car.

As someone may have said, as 183 fighter planes appeared over the horizon of Pearl Harbor, this does not bode well.

If there’s one adjective everyone uses about good white Burgundy (and indeed Chardonnay) it’s “buttery”. Sadly, this wine is more like those low fat alternatives, which nobody tells you are also low flavour.

An initially fresh, grapefruity bouquet simply evaporates from the glass within minutes, disappearing like cars from a traffic warden. And similarly with the flavour; any richness you might detect in an initial sip (beware the in-store tasting!) is long gone before the second glass. No “sinewy virtuosity” here, and as far as fruit is concerned, there’s just a thin flavour of lemon fruitgums, with a clenching aftertaste. In fact, served with food, people might not even notice it; or, if you put a slice of lemon in the jug, they could confuse it with their water.

(Incidentally, whoever wrote that back label – it has neither a good depth of flavour, nor a concentration of fruit. It is, however, arguably, dry. Frankly, I’m beginning to wish I was.)

Now look. I’m really rather copped off about this. I’m sitting here with a £9 bottle of wine, which is about twice what CJ pays, and God knows he moans enough about the rubbish he has to put up with.

If somewhere is selling classic wines, it is going to start attracting people like me, rather than corner-shop customers who are simply trying to obliterate the preceding day for a fiver. I’ve been lured in, by a classic French appellation, and a little knowledge.

I don’t want a load of comments about how it’s hard to turn the business around, get new stock, etc etc. Because this place is open, and it’s selling stuff to customers, and if the owners don’t feel the stuff on their shelves is representative of their operation and their brand, then they should close until it is.

Or perhaps this is what they drink in Walsall…


Thursday 11 August 2011

The Pink Horror - Fetzer White Zinfandel Rosé

A health warning: I don't know if this is a surprise to anyone but me, but if you drink this ineffable wine, you will find that it tastes of nothing other than bubblegum, sherbert and Strawberry Mivvi; and that it looks like the stuff the dentist used to give you in order to rinse'n'spit.

It's also known as a Zinfandel Blush, and in the States they drink it in plastic cups, like a soft drink. Through a straw.

Am I the last person on the planet to have discovered this? I saw the word Zinfandel, noted the uneasy Versace-pink colouring, but decided that, nonetheless, it had to be on the dry side of the fence, I mean Zinfandel, no? And after that success with the Brightwell Vineyard Oxford Rosé, too. I bought it on special offer (that clincher) and settled down to enjoy it with a nice bit of sea bass and some sautéed potatoes. Of course the combination was entirely revolting, like eating sausage and custard, but I was so convinced in my own mind that it would somehow come right that I pressed on, mixing the two, insanely certain that some kind of alchemy would happen in my mouth and the combination could be made to work.

It was only when I looked at the instructions on the back of the bottle and saw the word sweet that I realised the depth of my own perversity, and gave up. The power of language to convince, where the undependable senses have failed. Listlessly, I paired it a bit later on with some cheesecake, but the damage was done. I couldn't drink it in any context without my teeth squirming.

Why am I writing this? I don't know. Shock, I think. It's the lurch into the unanticipated, the apple that turns out to be rotten, the unwashed shirt, the biscuit tin full of ants, the corpse in the nun's habit, the green sky and the blue grass, the smell of frying in an empty room. That's why. And I still have half a bottle left.


Sunday 7 August 2011

Drinking On A Boat - Brightwell Vineyard Oxford Rosé

Drinking On A Boat - Brightwell Vineyard Oxford Rosé

I'm on this sailboat, with the wife, grimly amusing myself off the south coast of England, and if there is one thing you think about when you're sailing and you're not absolutely certain you like sailing, then that thing is drink. But if you do not have a fifty-foot yacht with a really nice fridge and a gimballed wine rack, any drink you bring on board an elderly thirty-six-footer (to take a case in point) is going to get hurled around like medicine in a bottle, to say nothing of assuming that spectral haze of diesel which attaches itself to anything kept below decks for more than a day.

And it calls for specialist knowledge to introduce a nice bottle of wine onto the boat and expect it to remain in good order for more than half an hour: a knowledge I do not have. Instead, whenever I go aboard, I poke around the various lockers to see what other people might have left behind in my absence, or go through the supermarket bags we have brought with us, in the hope that, even though I know I forgot to bring any wine with me, my memory might be faulty and, yes! Here's that bottle of indestructible Londis Red Burgundy my subconscious successfully gave house room to all those hours ago!

So I go through this pantomime, like a child. This time, though, I find a bottle of Finca Labarca Rioja rolling around in a locker under the settee, which comes as a complete surprise to me, especially as it has a cork and a nicely prissy label. I cannot have bought it myself. Nor can I have bought the Brightwell Vineyard Oxford Rosé hiding in the partitioned booze holder in the centre of the saloon table. This turns out to be English and I believe that I've only ever drunk  an English wine once in my entire life, a kind of fizzy white from Herefordshire, not unpleasant, mildly cleansing in fact, the way I imagine a glass of Optrex might taste with some gas bubbles in it. I look at the Brightwell Vineyard Rosé doubtfully.

The fact is that on a boat you need beer for fine weather, and spirits for everything else, all the time. Cheap whisky is good (Tesco's, bought by the Magnum) with a back-up of Calvados to administer that final blow to the head at the end of the day. All three drinks can take hours, months, of physical punishment and bilge water, and come up tasting fresh enough to take away the raw existential terror of sailing. Sometimes they even taste better for being a bit salty.

And what do you know, the Finca Labarca Rioja has had it, and (even though I polish the whole bottle off with glowering determination) tastes too much of things like stamp adhesive and shoe polish to be much fun.

But the Brightwell Vineyard Oxford Rosé! I don't know who these people are, but after I've given the Rosé some time in the boat's doughty old fridge, out comes this nicely-blushing stuff, robust enough to withstand the aggressive neglect that happens in sailing, tasty enough to inspire nods towards appley and somehow vanilla and with a very tidy way of applying itself to the dead centre of the tongue before disappearing down the back of the throat without any of the whoofs and barfs that other rosés have a way of surprising you with.

And English too! I mean, given the thick-wittedness of most yachties, you can't be seen to be drinking rosé at any time, on account of effeminacy; but if you told them it was British, well, then, sentimental bigotry would take over and you'd be allowed to carry on. Who'd have thought it?


The subject of wine and sailing, and the effeminacy or otherwise of rosé wine, now seems to be up for discussion amongst hardcore yachties and others at the Scuttlebutt Forum of Yachting World