Wednesday 28 September 2011

Do we want 'unusual' wines? - Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Marzemino

Do we want our wine to be ‘unusual’? I’m only asking, because that is the adjective Sainsbury's have used to describe their Taste the Difference Marzemino. “This unusual wine…”, begins their description on both the back label and the shelf-talker. And frankly, I don’t think ‘unusual’ is a characteristic one looks for in a wine.

Offered something ‘unusual’, the common human reaction is somewhere between the wary, the cautious and the downright suspicious. Would you, for example, tell guests that the meat you are serving to them is ‘unusual’? People would be expecting fillet of stoat. 

“Yes, we’re having ocelot this evening. They say it’s ‘unusual’.” I bet it bloody is…

Surely there’s an inherent criticism if someone looks into your dining room and says, “That’s an unusual colour…”. What if someone said to a mother, ‘What an unusual baby…’?

Or imagine, somewhat in the vein of a New Yorker cartoon caption, pausing at the bedroom door to say to your partner, “Tonight, I thought we might try something…unusual”.

With drinks perhaps above all else, the notion of the usual is something positive. “Your usual?” asks the barman, and a whole relationship is established; he knows you and your tastes. He doesn’t think you’re a boring old fart for having the same thing over and over again. He thinks you’re a person of discernment, who has sampled widely and arrived at an ideal. And he compliments your initial choice by asking, “Same again?”

Yes, the same again, please. We spend years (not to mention pounds) hunting around for wines we really like. And when we find one, we immediately buy a case, so we can repeat the experience twelve more times.

We mourn the disappearance from the shelves of a wine we like; we regret the inevitable passing of a good vintage; the final bottle from the case. We grieve for a wine we know whose cost has risen to the unaffordable. We want our usual.

Part of this whole business of understanding wine is about predictability. You choose a wine for a dish, a meal or a guest based upon anticipating how that wine will taste. When you open a Chablis, you expect it to taste a certain way. An unusual Chablis is one which doesn’t taste like a Chablis. Perhaps it tastes like a Sauternes, which would be very unusual for a Chablis, not to say unwelcome.

Oh, those of us who like to explore wine, and broaden our drinking experience, do like to try something different – but we wouldn’t serve something described as ‘unusual’ unless we’d tried it ourselves and could vouch for it. “What’s the worst that can happen?” is a phrase suited to a mass-produced soft drink, but inappropriate to the serving of potentially appalling wine, where consequences can range from embarrassment and social exclusion to nausea, choking, vomiting, headache and other symptoms drawn from the back of pharmaceutical packaging.

Fortunately there are some, like Sediment, whose sheer curiosity outweighs the imagined threat of medical emergency. Of course one must try such wines alone, but avoiding any risk to one’s carefully nurtured social status (let alone marriage) is just a further benefit of drinking ‘unusual’ wines by yourself, a benefit unaccountably excluded from CJ’s post on solo drinking.

(When you consider the wine he usually consumes, solo drinking is virtually a necessity.)

Marzemino is certainly uncommon, even rare, both terms which might actually intrigue potential purchasers. A regional varietal of North-Eastern Italy, often used for blending, it’s drunk by Don Giovanni on the way to Hell in his eponymous opera (“Versa il vino, eccellente marzemino!). And given the number of times I’ve been told to go to that particular destination…

And this Marzemino has much of the Gamay about it, with cherry, plum and delicate red fruit flavours. It’s like a very light Beaujolais, innocuously drinkable and hard to believe it’s 12% alcohol. The flavour drifts past, just a fleeting nuance of berries and floral notes. It probably works best with food, because it surely offers insufficient entertainment on its own. But to answer that classic police question to witnesses, “Did you notice anything particularly unusual?” the answer would have to be no, officer, I did not.

However, in store I found it reduced from £5.99 to £4.49, perhaps an indication that it has not found favour with a mass audience. And at the time of writing, Sainsbury are actually offering it online at £12 for three. £4 a bottle is absurdly cheap for any wine which you can actually keep down.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say it’s unusual…


Tuesday 20 September 2011

Drinking On Your Own: The Facts - Kumala Eternal (sic) Chenin Blanc/Chardonnay

Fact: People who announce in a great gust of lordly piety that They never drink on their own (usually giving you a look at the same time) are joyless pedants, whose pedantry derives from a psychological terror, i.e. that their own natures would compel them to drink the bottle dry and then the bottle after that, without the presence of another individual to stop them.

Fact: But by reiterating their position constantly, and po-faced, they make it seem like the only responsible way to behave. It is not.

Fact: The French drink on their own all the time.

Fact: Drinking on your own is a legitimate and intense pleasure, allowing you to brood on the mystery of life without having to explain or articulate your woozy philosophisings to anyone else.

Fact: It also allows you to drink stuff you otherwise wouldn't be able to drink in company, or would, at least, have difficulty accounting for. As I write, I am reaching an accomodation with something called Kumala Eternal Chenin Blanc/Chardonnay/Semillon, which is one of those scary cheap whites, the usual aggressive mix of a mouthful of ball bearings/escaped coal gas/rumour of incipient migraine, but still okay if you keep it almost frozen. It also has a friendly gecko image on the label and, best of all, is free on this occasion, donated by my wife as a leftover from work. This alone gives it a pathetically grateful high rating on the Great Wine Graph.

Fact: One of the single most pleasurable things you can do, at any age, even better perhaps than just drinking a glass of wine, is sit in a quiet bar, on your own, with a glass of wine and a cigarette and achieve a state of absolute detached calm as the world goes on around you. Nowadays excessively difficult to achieve anywhere in Europe (and impossible in the UK) it marries Fact no. 4 above, with the joy of a thoughtful cig in what Richard Klein calls a caesura in time. Actually, he doesn't stipulate the booze, but in his magisterial Cigarettes Are Sublime - an investigation of the cultural centrality of fag-smoking - he talks incredibly winningly about the way a tranquil smoke can arrest time, freeing the smoker from the jabbering torment of ambition, human relationships, existential angst etc. In this caesura, this intentional breakage of the flow, the contemplative stillness is bliss.

Fact: Cigarettes Are Sublime, along with Dieting Makes You Fat, by Geoffrey Cannon and Hetty Einzig, are probably the two most influential books I possess.

Fact: Now I think about it, I probably drink less when I'm on my own. There comes a point where another glassful will invariably mean intoxication, and being drunk on your own is the living end unless you really, really, want to be drunk on your own (bankruptcy, doomed relationship, terminal illness). Whereas, when I drink with, say, PK, it's all too easy (PK having the capacity and persistence of a wet & dry vacuum) to try and keep up, thereby plunging heedlessly into that second or even third bottle, with disastrous consequences. Whereas the act of putting the screw cap back on the unfinished bottle gives one a little thrill of maturity, as well as being an implicit riposte to Fact no.1.

Fact: Which means I'm starting to sound like no.1 and therefore must



Wednesday 14 September 2011

Sunday morning wine – Innocent Bystander Pink Moscato

Sometimes, you come across a concept of which the very linguistic construction suggests a potential shift in your lifestyle. It’s like the first time you hear of onboard wi-fi, the staycation or slip-on shoes.

Thanks to an invitation from Liberty Wines  CJ and I were able to sample some of Australia’s premium wines; and it was there I heard Innocent Bystander winery, from the Yarra Valley, describe their Pink Moscato as “a Sunday morning wine”.

It was like a revelation. I’m sure there are many differences between Sunday mornings in the Yarra Valley and those in London. But the mere notion of a “Sunday morning wine” suddenly changed the whole prospect of waking up at the weekend.

Readers of a certain age will remember this television ad from the 1980s for the Halifax, which infected my generation with its smug notion of a loft-living lifestyle, “easy like a Sunday morning”. And such a Sunday morning, with a Docklands apartment, cat, coffee, cool music and a crisp white shirt. Oh, and the only newspaper seller in London who is positively cheery in the morning, and is happy to accept notes from a cashpoint without responding “Ain’t you got nuffink smaller, mate?”

But time moves on. You can tell that lifestyle’s a thing of the past, if only because the chap in the ad gets his milk in a bottle. By now, he has hopefully found a more significant other than a cat to share his bed; and perhaps he has even progressed through the assault course years known as parenthood, during which mornings are anything but bloody “easy”, and through which he is unlikely to have retained yawning warehouse doors opening five floors up.

Personally, I always fancied Sunday mornings like those at Downton Abbey
descending to find a range of cooked dishes such as kedgeree lining the dining room under silver domes. For some reason, Mrs K hasn’t quite got round to this provision. And my average Sunday morning begins, unlike the Earl of Grantham, by waking up with hair like Einstein; getting up before anyone else in my slumbering household; and trudging downstairs to interpret the premises like a crime scene.

How many offspring and/or guests might be lurking in the bedrooms? What did they eat last night, and if the tins are anything to go by, how could it involve both tuna and baked beans? Are any bottles in the recycling and, if so, are they from the (acceptable) kitchen rack or the (forbidden) Cellar? And is anything meant to be consumed at this time of day, like milk/bread/eggs/coffee, actually left in the house? Sadly, things here remain resolutely downtown rather than Downton.

So could a Sunday morning wine transport me from reality? (Of which, as we know, human kind cannot bear very much, and since waking I had tolerated at least half an hour.)

Innocent Bystander’s Pink Moscato is a gorgeous, flamingo pink, and comes in a cutely shaped half-bottle for about £6.95, with the all-or-nothing consumption that a crown cap (like a beer) suggests.

I’m immediately thinking verandahs, dappled morning sunlight, warm breeze, birdsong – none of which, it goes without saying, applied this week at our humble abode. Here in London it’s already too late in the year to sit outside on a Sunday morning, and it’s not my idea of fun to eat breakfast in a fleece, under a grey sky with drizzle in your muesli. No, to me that sounds too much like a music festival…

Made from Gordo and Black Muscat grapes, this wine it is breathtakingly sweet, at a level which would normally make my teeth wince. But the crispness and effervescence keeps it light, and away from the cloying dessert-wine syrup you might expect. So it’s actually fresh and bright, but with an overwhelmingly strawberry flavour and floral bouquet.

It’s like a Bellini made with strawberries, or a Buck’s Fizz, but better. (Buck’s is the only significant gentlemen’s club to be founded since the First World War, and unlike most of the Pall Mall clubs I have visited, so very handy for the shops; but its great creation, Buck’s Fizz, is surely fatally flawed by both its acidity, and its bits).

The Pink Moscato is still 5.5% alcohol, which puts it just a notch above Strongbow cider; and if someone came downstairs at 9am they would be rightly concerned to find me swigging from a can of Strongbow with breakfast.

But the half-bottle is just right for two. If person two actually gets up before you finish it…

Pink Moscato doesn’t brighten the weather, but it does begin to brighten one’s attitude towards it. It’s just so much more stylish than a carton of fruit juice. I find myself feeling somehow celebratory, even reading the magazine section first. Things seem to be looking up, God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world…and yes indeed, the chap does arrive on time to clear out the gutters!

Plus, drinking wine at breakfast gets you out of some of the more irksome aspects of a Sunday morning. No, I can’t drive to the supermarket, I’m probably over the limit. No, I shouldn’t trim the hedge, I’m a trifle unsteady. No, that DIY involving the power drill may not be a good idea.

Oh, this is brilliant. I should probably go back to bed…


Wednesday 7 September 2011

Penley Estate Hyland Shiraz 2009/ Co-Op Pontorno D'Avola

Full disclosure: the following wine was given to Sediment as a gracious freebie by the good people at Moreno Wines, and while I would recoil from giving the impression that the bums at Sediment (and their opinions) can be bought off by the application of free drink, I am at the same time compelled to reveal that Penley Estate Hyland Shiraz 2009 is not only excessively tasty, but charming, well-formed and would be the ideal accompaniment to cheese or red meats. In fact, its only drawback is that sells in the UK for something around £16 a bottle, which puts it in Fantasy Grog territory for me, and to be honest, I can think of no foodstuff or occasion which would merit £16 for a bottle of red, but all the same.

Having arrived freely at our house, the bottle actually lay around for a bit while I nerved up to savour the incredible drink it contained; but at last I put on the PK-approved wine tasting outfit (Evening Dress, Decorations), set up my Master of Wine shingle, got out the proper Paris Goblets, gave the stuff time to breathe and hefted my biro for the tasting notes.

Which reveal in the cold light of day: 'Big oaky nose + touch of creosote'; 'Big tannins'; 'Massive loganberry taste'; 'Slightly abrupt whoof at the back of the throat'; 'Chocolatey finish'. After that, coherence becomes a casualty of ethanol, and I note a 'Slight feeling of having acquired extra jowls'; 'Big! Huge! Like swallowing a beachball!'; and, at last, a dying fall in which I actually wrote down, 'Well, you're not in Kansas any more, Dorothy.' Not bad for a mere bottle of wine, eh?

It was, in other words, big and delicious, and I won't be drinking anything as nice as that for another six months.

But here's something: I couldn't finish the bottle in one go, so I stuck the cork back in and returned for the rest the following day. And while it was still good, some of the energy seemed to have gone out of it. An air of pathos had set in. Which was odd for something which, the day before, had been all about size and girth and costliness; as if a gorilla had suddenly turned out to be a chimp in a suit. Or was it just the chemistry in my mouth playing games?

Anyway, as the Penley ran out, I found myself moodily unscrewing the cap of a £4 (special offer) Pontorno Nero D'Avola from the Co-Op, drinking a bit and finding it tasted pretty much of grape juice and Avgas, perfectly okay for £4, putting the cap firmly back on and returning to that the next day in my rolling programme of drinking. By which time the Nero D'Avola had mysteriously acquired a personality, a kind of defiance. No longer grape juice: more like real carafe wine, as it might be from a glass container in a nice West End bistro. I smirked at it, acknowledging the effort it was putting in to make itself intriguing, drank a bit more, put the cap back on, returned to it on day three, by which time, it was even darker, chewier, gnarlier in a good way, and when I finally polished off the dregs, I was sad to see it go. Who'd have thought, all this entertainment for £4?

So where does that leave us on the Great Wine Graph, in which the x-axis is Price and the y-axis is Sensation Delivered, and we are always hoping to get as close to the Origin on x and the top of the scale on y, giving a fantastical spike followed by indefinite flatlining (Although PK's Graph, I think, would be much more a classic Bell Curve)? 

Since the Penley was, so far as I was concerned, going for £0, that ought to have made it the steal of the decade, even though it wasn't, it was £16. Therefore and conversely the winner was clearly the Nero D'Avola on a bangs/bucks calculation, except (can you believe it?) it had previously been on sale at a grotesque £8 a bottle, abjectly flogged off by the Co-Op at half price in recognition of the fact that only an idiot would pay that much for something so undependable. Which puts the Penley back on top place, except for the fact that £16 (blame the strong Australian Dollar, maybe) still seems kind of steep, even when it comes down to £0 and the Nero D'Avola goes up to £8. 

The Graph, therefore, cannot place these two drink experiences anywhere on the bangs/bucks continuum, because they have no consistent real world price

And as a consequence of that, there is only one way out of the impasse: it's time to go back to Kansas, Dorothy.