Tuesday 25 October 2011

Everyday Drinking: From the Tesco Wine List to Kingsley Amis

So in the general excitement and confusion of getting ready for our trip to Japan (self + wife, not self + PK) almost nothing has made any impact on me except for:

The Tesco Autumn Wine List, which flopped through the front door the other day. This, I was pleased to see, is consolingly reticent in its wine recommendations. The new French range allows the tense punter 'To discover areas you may not have tasted before with confidence', while in the 'Simply' range you can find 'A quick and easy solution to which wine to choose'. 

This is all good, but the real clincher is the anxiety-smothering quantity of industrial name brands dotted throughout the list: Jacob's Creek, Blossom Hill, Torres Viña Sol, even Blue Nun and Mateus Rose, for God's sake. This is absolutely unimprovable in its way, although it's been a while since I did anything much with Blue Nun other than smirk ironically at it. But that aside, we have a selection here that Henry Ford would have been proud of, if he hadn't been a teetotaller, on account of its dependability and its unpretentiousness. You can have your drink in any colour, provided it's red, white or pink; and your only decision centres around the price point. 

There is something in all this that I find unspeakably cheering. Why? I think it may be because (in my oafish way) I find the trainspotter element of high-end wine appreciation so fantastically irritating that the sooner the thousand and one little vineyards with their arts & craft skills and unpredictable vintages go the way of bespoke car manufacturers and wrought-iron furniture wranglers, courtesy of Tesco's wine industrialists, the happier I shall be. I just want a glass of wine, and I want it with Tesco's Fordist imprimatur on the label.

And then, at the same time as the Tesco list turned up, I got a copy of Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis. This is actually on loan from the good people at The London Column and I don't know if it's going to make my life better or just shorter. A quick peek reveals the following: the recipe for Evelyn Waugh's Noonday Reviver (1 hefty shot of gin, 1 bottle of Guinness, ginger beer); the following injunction - 'Make up your mind to drink wine in quantity'; and this observation about vintages - 'Most of the crap talked about wine centres on these'. 

This is combustible stuff on just about any level, and I can't wait to get to know Everyday Drinking in greater depth. On sake, Japanese rice wine, Amis merely observes that 'When I heated some on the stove recently to check that it was as horrible as I remembered, it took all the deposit off the lining of the saucepan'. As a consequence, sake is listed in the index as a 'cleaning agent'. 

So no pointers for the Far East, but then I have an idea that Japan is going to be so expensive I won't be trying anything stiffer than tapwater while I'm over there. Or will there be free drink on the plane that I can smuggle into my hotel room? And would it count, anyway?


Thursday 13 October 2011

The rules of wine drinking – Chateaux Tour St Bonnet, Liversan and La Tour de By, and the grocer's port…

I have always been intrigued by the etiquette of wine, the social rules and rituals which surround our drinking. And there are few occasions which contain quite so many as dinner at my father-in-law’s house in Somerset.

Sometimes I feel that life is like circling an HM Bateman cartoon, in constant fear of committing a social faux pas, and being mocked as The man who…

I spent a great deal of time myself learning about the rules which govern an English gentleman’s dress. For example, I know which buttons to button on a double-breasted jacket; never to wear brown in town; and that a Brigade tie should not be worn after 6pm. Some of these rules are unlikely to trouble me – I am not entitled, for example, to wear a Brigade tie even before 6pm – but one feels better for knowing them. You should know the rules before you break them.

(It was once questioned, for example, whether Edward, Duke of Windsor, then Prince of Wales, should be wearing brown suede shoes with a blue pinstripe suit. “The Prince knows better,” said one observer, “so it’s alright.”)

So naturally I am intrigued by the rules which surround the drinking of wine. Some rules, like “red wine with meat, white wine with fish” have become so clichéd that they are featured in James Bond films, and seem to exist solely nowadays in order that wine bloggers can find clever ways to contradict them. But they are as nothing to the arcane rules which seem to govern the drinking at an English country dining table.

Dinner at my father-in-law’s is not formal, but suits, ties and skirts are appreciated, albeit not on the same guest. You are expected to be “on parade” (ie dressed) for drinks before dinner at 7pm. Sharp. Shouting upstairs to latecomers begins at about 7.02.

You must pace yourself. After the drink before dinner, there will always be a white wine to start the meal, and the inevitable port to conclude. And in between, some serious claret, often gifted by his son and myself.

On this occasion, we have ended up with three clarets to accompany the main course. My father-in-law’s Tour St Bonnet 2007; my brother-in-law’s Liversan 2008; and my own La Tour de By 2001. All Medoc/Haut-Medoc, all Cru Bourgeois. So, in what order should we drink them?

Well, there’s a rule for that. The rule governing the order of wine service: white before red; light before heavy; young before old. It’s the kind of straightforward rule all, except the most contentious, can agree makes sense. The kind of rule I like. And simple too, misunderstood only once by an elderly chap who grumbled “No youngster’s getting served before me.”

So it was white wine first, and then, on an age basis, young to old, our claret should therefore have been drunk in the order Liversan>St Bonnet>Tour de By. Easy.

However, on a light to heavy basis, it would probably be St Bonnet>Liversan>Tour de By. That order probably reflects the standing of the chateaux as well. And in either of those orders, even given our prodigious consumption, we might never have reached the Tour de By.

So brother-in-law decided that the Tour St Bonnet should be kept unopened, “as a fallback”. First faux pas; “fallback” was a description he then floundered to explain to the lady on his left, who had given it to my father-in-law as a gift.

The table, properly laid of course, glitters in candlelight. But to maintain this splendid appearance, wine is served in small, beautiful crystal glasses; great at reflecting candlelight, poor at enhancing the flavour of wine. Is there a rule that the presentation of a meal is more important than its content? His son and I smuggle classic Bordeaux glasses into the dining-room, the better to appreciate the claret. This receives a baleful glare, not so much of criticism as disappointment.

After eliminating the Tour St Bonnet, young before old was, it proved, the right order. The Liversan was initially a little stern, but it softened in the decanter into a blackberry fruity, rich and earthy claret. (Currently available at Waitrose for £12.15 it is very good value indeed – and with a further 25% off as I write, it is astonishing.) The Tour de By was softer, denser, darker and more savoury by comparison. In this order, it was as if the latter was a fully-opened version of its predecessor, an ideal sequence.

I try to request more – but, another rule intervenes.

It is, according to my father-in-law, vulgar to use the term “more” wine. He will instead offer you “a little wine?” when your glass is low. (Unless he’s telling his story about Clement Attlee and Churchill’s funeral, in which case he won’t notice.) But he will never offer – and you must never ask – for “more”. It’s a rule which becomes increasingly hard to remember as the evening progresses, and you aim at getting through two bottles of claret, but it does add a certain Dickensian quality to the table.

As usual, the meal finishes with port, although on this occasion the decanter contains only what my father-in-law describes as “grocer’s port”, ie Late Bottled Vintage. “Supermarket” is never mentioned; clearly the term “grocer” is considered disdainful enough.

Still, even with “grocer’s port”, the rules obtain; the port must, as tradition demands, be passed around the table to the left. Halting my father-in-law in full declamatory flow is a rare achievement, but his granddaughter managed this by reaching across the table for the decanter. He was rendered speechless – uniquely, in my experience of a gentleman who reminds guests that “A dinner without conversation is, literally, unspeakable”.

And, it seems, one cannot pour port for one’s neighbour; one can only pour for oneself. I transgressed, assuming it was courteous to pour a glass for the lady on my left. I forgot that traditionally, of course, ladies would have left the dining room before the port was served. So this conflict of etiquettes should never have occurred; if ladies now remain in the dining room for port, one treats them as fellow gentlemen…

Why, why do we do all of this? Passing the port, not asking for more, serving wines in a particular order, pouring or not pouring… Why do we surround wine-drinking with arcane rules, which probably dissuade some people from even serving the stuff?

In some cases it is, genuinely, a matter of taste. That rule for the order of serving wines surely makes sense, both in terms of your palate, and in accompanying a traditionally weighted three-course meal. There may be some case for serving an old heavy red before a light young white, but if so, it’s as well to know you might be expected to explain it.

In other instances, it’s simply a matter of enhancing the experience. Like candlelight, it makes it special. The fact that we are partaking in a little shared social ritual must influence our experience of a wine, just as surely as a sight of the label. I will never know how the grocer’s port might taste passed the other way, or the clarets taste in a different order; but I do know that, with all the laughter and comments about adhering to the rules, my father-in-law’s dining table is an enormously enjoyable place to drink it.

And as for arcane rules, well, what else would you expect from a nation that retains peerages and Royal weddings, always leaves the bottom button on a waistcoat undone, and revels in 42 Laws of Cricket ?


Thursday 6 October 2011

Drinking Wine From A Mug – Santa Julia Malbec

So I was trying to face down this Argentinian Malbec, got it from Waitrose, in the right price range, screw cap, red, no vintage, all the qualities one looks for in a quality table wine; only it was proving a bit hard to get through on account of being incredibly aggressive and full of blood and sweat and heat and dust and flies and volcanic gas, and even though it was only 13.5%, the thing taken as a whole had a kick like a mule and I wasn't sure how much I could swallow without blacking out. It was like drinking the floor of an abattoir. Impasse.

Then, in a mixture of boredom and desperation, I thought, I'll drink this out of a mug, that's the correct medium for this bad boy. And then I thought, I'd better try it from some other drinking vessels to provide a comparison and some scientific rigour. So I got together my usual Duralex drinking tumbler, a Paris goblet, a nice Royal Doulton bone china teacup and a biggish coffee mug and took a hit of the Malbec from each one. The results were:

Duralex tumbler: Tasted the same.

Paris goblet: Tasted the same, but with an inexplicable added tweeness.

Bone china teacup: Tasted of curry. After a minor panic I decided that the tea towel I wiped it out with must have been a good bit dirtier than it looked, but either way it felt wrong, what with the deep aquamarine on white pattern and the gold edging and having to sip from it in that affected tea-drinking way.

Mug: Tasted just right. We're talking about a proper 250ml glazed earthenware mug here, with a full builder's handle, software logo printed on it to increase the functionality, the whole thing thick and robust enough to survive being dropped repeatedly on the kitchen floor. When I mentioned this to PK he got incredibly exercised, as ever, turns out he has different mugs for different times of the day, some for tea some for coffee, some china some porcelain. Thickness of rim he kept insisting. Well, this had a rim as thick as my small toe and all the better for it. The filthy Malbec sat at the bottom, still belligerent but knowing when it was beaten, and every quaff only made it taste better.

Picture my excitement at discovering a new way to interpret a familiar drinking experience. Feeling bullied by your rough red wine? Drink it from a mug! With a mug, you are in charge, you call the shots, you get a Hemingwayesque sensation in the thorax as if you were a Partisan up in the mountains, slaking your thirst before a) wenching b) killing Fascists.

On the other hand: If I do start drinking wine from a mug on a regular basis, it's going to look like a piece of willed and slightly pathetic eccentricity. I have no beard, nor do I speak Catalan. At the same time, no-one will ever tear me away from my beloved Duralex tumbler, except possibly to give me a larger one.

But then again, this business of drinking wine from a glass: it's a relatively recent practice, after all, since mass-produced wine glasses only got going from around the very end of the nineteenth century. Before that, glassware was for the gentility; the rest of us drank out of anything that didn't leak. It's not a given. And the mug was and is good, satisfying and apt and with an extra safety margin provided by the handle. Its only drawback, in fact, is that you can't see how much wine is left except by peering down inside, and that only gives you a very approximate sense. Maybe one of those transparent measures built into the wall of the mug, like you get in electric kettles, would do the job.

It needs further thought. Txin Txin.