Thursday 20 December 2012

Wine to go – Cavatina Goblet Shiraz

I suppose all of us must sometimes feel, despite our desire for a glass of wine, that it’s just too much hard work to open a bottle, and pour its contents into a glass. Oh, the effort. Or perhaps all of one's wineglasses are dirty? Or broken? Or you’ve forgotten which way round a corkscrew turns? That must be when we reach with a sigh of relief for a serving of wine conveniently prepackaged in a sealed plastic goblet.

This concept once appeared on Dragon’s Den, a TV programme in which, for the uninitiated, business concepts are “pitched” to a panel of potential investors. The entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne said at the time: "This doesn't work as a selling item. People do not want to buy wine in plastic glasses like that. For that reason, I'm out."

But of course, he has been proved wrong. I could have told him that, depressingly, there are people out there who will buy wine in anything, from cardboard boxes to metal cans, from absurdly shaped and coloured bottles and faux carafes to CJ’s jerrycanA plastic goblet seems positively civilised by comparison.

And despite the Dragons’ misgivings, this concept seems to be proving extremely successful with, the manufacturer’s website says, “picnickers, concertgoers and commuters.” I will take their word for the latter, as I haven’t myself seen anyone drinking wine on the 237 bus.

But it would seem to me, despite my opening remarks, that the market for sealed plastic goblets of wine is surely an outdoor one. Which was why I was surprised to see it on the supermarket shelves this week. Because here in London, it’s December, and it’s been bitterly cold – icicles hang by the wall, and Dick the shepherd blows his nail. (Heaven knows what Nail the shepherd blows.)

Yet Lord Sainsbury, in his infinite winter wisdom, piles these goblets high and sells ‘em, if not cheap, then at £2.49 apiece. And upon his informative little shelf-talker, he recommends that they are “Perfect with grilled steak or tomato-based pasta dishes”. 

Now, those are not really outdoor dishes, are they, whether in chilly December or not. So they are clearly suggesting that one enjoys this product indoors at the moment, with one’s warming winter meals. So be it.

I can tell you from the outset, though, that having a plastic glass, with a label on its side, at your table for Sunday lunch, makes you feel a total prannock. (One of the offspring raises the glass, quizzically; Mrs K offers those emollient words,“It’s for the blog,” and they both sit back to watch with barely disguised amusement.)

Obviously you could try and emulate in your home the outdoor situations for which the goblet was presumably devised. You could perhaps picnic in the dining room, by sitting on the floor in an uncomfortable position, pairing your plastic glass with plastic cutlery, and forgetting several vital components of the meal.

You could emulate train commuters, by lurching about in your seat, overcrowding your dining area with newspapers, and having your companion push past you mid-meal to visit the lavatory. 

Or you could resist going to the toilet at all, and turn on somebody else’s choice of music at inappropriate volume, while, every so often, your companion jumps on your foot. That’s the outdoor concert. Or is it the commuting…?

Anyway, the goblet initially is a little challenging. Opening it is rather like opening a pot of yoghurt, or a plastic flagon of milk. Like the milk, the problem comes with removing the very last bit of the foil lid, which jerks free and invariably causes the contents to slop out. Like the yogurt, one wonders whether it is socially acceptable to lick the lid.

I would like to describe the wine’s bouquet, but I can’t, because the glass is almost full, and so it is impossible to get your nose inside the glass without getting wine in your nostrils. Loath to share the fate of the Duke of Clarence, we shall have to forgo notes on the bouquet.

And the goblet is also somewhat uncomfortable in the mouth. In order for the lid to adhere, the rim of the goblet is flat, not rounded – again, like a yoghurt pot – which means that it catches on your upper lip as you drink. It is akin to drinking from a plastic flowerpot.

But astonishingly, the wine itself is actually drinkable. It’s a pretty bog-standard Shiraz – a bit light in weight, but with distinctive fruit and spice, and no evil catch in the throat. The plastic seems to have had no more discernible impact on the flavour than on beer in a plastic glass, or water from a plastic bottle. Frankly, I’ve drunk worse. And as the price of £2.49 a goblet actually works out at £9.99 a bottle, it ought to be drinkable.

There’s something to be said when the means of delivery is less palatable than the wine itself. Yes, I could have poured the wine into a proper glass. Equally, if there was any merit in serving wine at home in flat-rimmed plastic receptacles, I could have poured decent wine into a yogurt pot.

What to do now with my plastic goblet? It says on their website that the goblet is “in fact near unbreakable” which, as another offspring is fond of saying, sounds like a wager to me.

But on the base it says that you can “reuse” it. Their website seems devoid of suggestions, so if anyone has any ideas for reusing a plastic flat-rimmed goblet, I would be interested to hear them. In the meantime, enjoy your Christmas, although it may only involve this product if you are pursuing your festivities outdoors. 

Or on a train.


Wednesday 12 December 2012

Hungarian Red Disappearance

Another day, another spasm of nostalgia.

'Whatever happened,' I say to my wife, 'to Hungarian red wine? We used to drink a ton of it.'
'It was horrible, wasn't it?' she says, baring her teeth at her new smartphone.
'It was, quite. But not quite horrible enough.'
'How do I delete an app?'

My phone is so dumb that I don't have apps as such. On the other hand, I do have a working phone. I take the opportunity to drive home my advantage.

'It was really, really cheap. And quite drinkable, in 1990.'
'Why don't you help me for once?'
'Bull's Blood? Whatever happened to Bull's Blood? We used to drink a ton of it.'
'Now look what you made me do. I've got rid of the browser, and the browser is the one thing I wanted.'
'So you couldn't look something up for me on your smartphone?'
'The browser's gone!'
'About Hungarian wines.'

Normally she would hurl her phone at me with a cry, only the thing is so new that I know she won't. Thwarted, she has to growl instead, unable to decide whether to growl at me or the smartphone. Two easy goals in the space of five minutes, I tell myself. I saunter off to my old desktop computer, feeling that the day is not going too badly.

But the problem remains. I want some old-school Hungarian red, but where is it? The big three supermarkets - Tesco, Sainsbury and Asda - only seem to do whites. Bafflingly, an online supermarket wine aggregator lists a Hungarian Cabernet Sauvignon from Asda, followed by Not Available and No Price, so I guess that line may have bitten the dust. Asda themselves list a Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon, but, like the other two supermarkets, they only seem to sell Hungarian whites.

Waitrose sell a white, too, and I know this because I actually wrote about it two years ago: Eva's Vineyard Chenin Blanc. Back then I called it 'A wholly transparent straw-coloured wine beverage whose colour did not change as a result of being exposed to the air' which induced 'a pleasing floral throb in my temples'. Clearly I was on top of my game, in those days. More surprisingly, the celebrated Fiona Beckett has also written it up, noting that it'd be 'Good for a bank holiday barbecue to which you've impulsively invited the entire neighbourhood.'

Even more surprisingly, and in the same piece, she draws our attention to Eva's Vineyard's own Merlot, which is listed by Supermarket Wine at the shatteringly sensible price of 3.99. Even more surprisingly than that, the page on which the Merlot sits is graced by a single outsider's comment, inserted by PK, in which he quotes the transparent straw-coloured crap review I had written nine months earlier about the Chenin Blanc. I am now consulting myself at several removes about a wine I think I might, in this world, want to buy on a web page which refers to a different wine altogether. This opens up such a dizzying avenue of perspectives that I have to go and lie down.

It is also the case that I am no nearer a cheap Hungarian red, because although Supermarket Wine puts it up there, Waitrose's own website doesn't, and it's certainly the case that only white is on sale at the branch down the road.

What else? Well, I can order something red online from the Hungarian WineHouse, but their cheapest is 10.80 a bottle, about three times the price I was hoping to get away with. Or I could get some actual Bull's Blood from DrinkSupermarket, at a much more bearable 5.69, but now I'm starting to ask myself, how badly do I want this stuff? At best it's a whim, at worst a folly, and the thought of making up a case and waiting three days for it to arrive makes me lose whatever enthusiasm I once had. I mean, a cheap Hungarian red is an impulse nostalgia buy or nothing at all. I can't even remember what it was about those reds that now seems so irresistible. Apart from their simplicity, incredible cheapness, robustness. Did they have a particular dusty, granular quality that, back in the Nineties, came over as sophisticated?

I return to the kitchen, where my wife has got her smartphone working again.

'It was in the rubbish bin,' she announces, smugly. 'So I just pulled it out of the rubbish bin and put it back on the start page. What did you want to look up?'
'Nothing,' I say. 'Nothing at all.'


Thursday 6 December 2012

Wining and Dining – The Sediment Guide to Wine and the Dinner-Party

Get it here! Wining and Dining - The Sediment Guide to Wine and the Dinner-Party– is an e-book short. Eight inimitable brand new and exclusive Sediment essays, on the subject of wine and the dinner-party, for less than the cost of a glass of wine. One of The Guardian's best drink books of 2013, and available from Amazon now in the UKand US
The dinner party is a social minefield. Some might say that the food, the placement, the guests and the conversation are all key elements in a dinner party’s success. But in typical Sediment fashion, we largely ignore such things.

We focus instead on the wine. For, as CJ rightly says, “the wine must be there and it mustn't be so foul that it makes your armpits prickle.” Wine can make or break your evening. And hence, we are proud to offer our own idiosyncratic advice on wine and the dinner-party.

The selection and service of dinner-party wines are clearly significant things, now that dinner-parties themselves have become something of a competitive sport. So these, and other, perhaps less obvious aspects of the evening’s wine, have been considered, by two gentlemen who have drunk rather more of it than their wives think they ought.

Of course, we have each taken our own particular approach to the event itself. For PK, “the dinner party is a combination of fashion show, restaurant, and debating chamber, held within the pages of an interior design magazine.” To which CJ retorts that “The main fashion statement at the last dinner party I went to was that the men had bothered to wear socks.”

The positions we each maintain on dinner-party wine may be anticipated by our regular readers, of which we are told there are some. One of us is hugely concerned about the wine and what it says about you. “Yes, it’s unfair that people may judge you by the wine you serve. But it is a declaration, to any guest who can read a label, of your worldliness, knowledge, style and generosity.  Guests may judge you by equally unfair characteristics like your accent; but the wine you serve and the way in which you serve it is more easily altered than a tendency to rhyme ‘like’ with ‘oik’.”

Our other author insists simply that “dinner without wine is a trial, an indefensibly spartan and protracted event. The wine must be there, and in quantity, to make a dinner worth attending, or giving, or ruining, or turning up late for, or hosting. …Here in the sticks, we don't select wine, we just go out and buy it. And we don't serve it, but we do plonk it on the table and hope it will pass muster.”

After such preliminaries, we consider other crucial ingredients of the evening itself, like cooking with wine – “or, rather, drinking wine while cooking, such that the first adds excitement to the experience of the second, without screwing it up completely.” 

There is the thorny issue of taking or receiving wine as a gift, “probably a habit left over from student days, when PBAB was in the corner of most social invitations, and the type of B you’d B was largely irrelevant.”

We do, of course, consider the choice of wines themselves and how to serve them – in essays addressing wines before, during and after the main meal. Knowing that our readers do not anticipate extensive tasting notes, we provide our usual idiosyncratic blend of general advice and suggestions, and try wherever possible to temper any ignorance with wit.

And finally, we consider the end of the evening, always remembering that “the best dinner parties are the ones you have no recollection of leaving”. 

You need to read this e-book, before the Christmas invitations start flying, and you feel compelled either to invite people round for dinner, or to accept an invitation to dine out. 

You can buy Wining and Dining for yourself or, of course, you can give it as a gift; unlike many other potential presents for a wine enthusiast, it will not break in transit. (In the UK, you can send your recipient an Amazon gift certificate for £1.99, and embed the link in the message field.) Unlike certain wines, it suggests only positive things about your taste.

You need to buy it for those friends who hosted that appalling dinner. And you need to buy it for yourself, so that you’re never described as those friends who hosted that appalling dinner.

Our Sediment guide is like the wine itself: “It will not necessarily induce merriness, boisterousness, wittiness or open-heartedness, but it will take away some of the pain, especially at your own dinner party, where your cooking will taste like the contents of a birdbath, and the merriest noise will be the sound of someone's car alarm going off.” 

Wining and Dining - The Sediment Guide to Wine and the Dinner-Party
Available from Amazon now in the UKand US

Surely the most enjoyable thing on the wine market for just £1.99.


Thursday 29 November 2012

Chilean White Headache

So I'm sitting in this hotel in Liverpool, sharing a bottle of generic Chilean White over the dinner table, and fear seizes my heart as I start on the contents of the bottle, not because it's particularly terrible, or because it's a bit room temperature rather than subtly misted, or even because I'm in Liverpool, but because it's an inoffensive white wine and I only have to go near an inoffensive white wine these days to get a headache the size of a tractor tyre. And I have no idea why.

Convention has it that if you want to avoid a head, then lay off the red. Also, explicitly lay off Port (which, it must be said, is usually as much fun to drink as the contents of a storm drain filled with granulated sugar), don't mix your drinks, inhale a nice dry white in a ladylike fashion and all will be well. But I can drink quite a lot of really quite bad red and only feel slightly fuddled in the morning, whereas if I tackle something as presentable, even, as the Wine Society'sWhite Burgundy, a drink generally beyond the scope of my ambitions, my temples start to throb and I feel an existential foreboding combined with déjà vu and a mystical sense of loss.

What is this? Age-related degeneration? It started this year, and only affects still, not sparkling, whites. Ten minutes' dithering search on the internet leaves me no wiser. 

Apparently you get a headache from drinking neither-here-nor-there white wine because

- It contains lots of sulfites. In this respect it is the same as red, of course

- It's served too cold, so you get an ice-cream headache

- It is sold unseasonably immature, and is therefore full of rough edges. Well, the last bottle of red I put away was a 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon from somewhere, which, while violent, did no lasting damage

- You're not eating anything with it because it's one of those tippling kind of drinks. You should always eat while drinking and serve you right if you don't

- Some people just don't like the congeners in white wine and that's all there is to it

- Ordinary white wine is so unremarkable you're drinking twice as much without noticing, you drunkard

- You're a cheapskate. Buy something more expensive, therefore less harmful

Depressed by the information revolution I conclude that maybe I am going to have to resign myself to this: still whites and me are not going to get along, nowadays, except with difficulty, until I experience some kind of metabolic revolution at the very least.

It could be worse. Nobody died. I haven't lost any money. Only now I have the gloomy apprehension that this is the first term in that process which I have observed in others: the gradual shrinkage of drinking possibilities.

My wife, for instance, started her drinking career happily consuming whites, reds, spirits, everything except lager. Then the still whites became unpalatable (made her teeth hurt), followed by the reds. A year ago she started to quail at Champagne, a moment of great hand-wringing and existential doubt. Gin & tonics, which she used to guzzle as enthusiastically as any provincial GP, are now off the menu. All she can look forward to is whisky, an occasional Bloody Mary and (God help us) a dry cider on warm days.

And she is not the only one. Someone over here can't drink beer any more; someone else can't cope with dessert wines or chocolate, either jointly or severally; another acquaintance reveals that they've never really liked wine at all, ever, and prefer coffee. The world is filling up with people who have drinking inhibitions and dietary restrictions (when the Americans came to stay, one couldn't eat complicated vegetables while the other had forsworn dairy products, so that was the asparagus in butter completely fucked) and the horizon is obscured by cloud.

If I am about to join them, then bang goes what's left of my lust for life. Instead it will be replaced by a valetudinarian's piffling fixations. I shall soon be like the ridiculous Mr. Woodhouse in Jane Austen's Emma, plucking at people's sleeves and saying 'You and I will have a nice basin of gruel together'. It's either that, or drinking what I like and having to eat Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Sunday breakfast every day of the week: six fried eggs, plus a glass of laudanum and seltzer, to take the pain away. Which actually doesn't sound like a bad idea, now I think of it.


Thursday 15 November 2012

Great Wine Moments In Movie History III: Withnail And I

Withnail and I, a British masterpiece from 1987, is so profligate with its brilliance that if it has a problem, it's that it's one of those movies which too easily reduces itself to scene-spotting and quote-topping. If I come up with 'We've gone on holiday by mistake,' you'll come back with 'I feel like a pig shat in my head.' If you announce, 'We are not drunks, we are multi-millionaires!' then I reply with, 'I think it's time to release you from the legumes, and transfer your talents to the meat.' If I say, 'The entire sink's gone rotten,' you say, 'Then the fucker will rue the day!' And so on. It is an obsessional movie, a movie about obsession. And it makes its admirers into obsessives as well.

If it has a plot at all then it notionally concerns one thing: the attempts of failed actors Withnail (played by Richard E Grant, magnificently hysterical) and Marwood, his pal (played by Paul McGann, just on the edge of sanity, a look of constant terror on his face, as if about to be dragged into a threshing machine), to get wasted, even to the brink of death. No drug is too foul or too inappropriate: from speed, to lighter fluid, to dope, to anti-freeze, nothing is beneath contempt.

The drug of choice, though, the one that really gets them through the day, is alcohol. 'A pair of quadruple whiskies,' gasps WIthnail at closing time, 'and a pair of pints.' In a genteel tea-shop, he yells, 'We want the finest wines available to humanity', shortly before being thrown out. Indeed, about the second thing that happens in the movie is Withnail announcing, in sepulchral tones, 'I've some extremely distressing news...We just ran out of wine.' Wine, a baffingly patrician drink for such a pair of low-lifers, is the release they crave.

And they get it, in quantity, at Uncle Monty's frightful country cottage. A chapter of accidents sees them flee London for some quiet time in a nameless part of the North. Monty, a vision of magisterial camp, delineated to perfection by Richard Griffiths, unexpectedly turns up with the right stuff. 'Which of you,' he asks, gazing humidly at the two young men, 'is going to be a splendid fellow and go down to the Rolls for the rest of the wine?' And the wine certainly looks pretty good, as they work their way through it, in the form of an accompaniment for a leg of lamb and in purely spontaneous, hard core boozing.

It should look good, because it actually is. Bruce Robinson, the mad genius - as writer and director - behind Withnail apparently acquired a job lot of superb wines from an idiot in Manchester who didn't know what he had. It came from a hotel that was closing down, where the proprietor had a load of old drink which he reckoned was 'muck' and far too musty to sell to anyone with a taste for the good life. The muck included Chateaux Beychevelle, Petrus and Margaux, two hundred bottles in all, for which Robinson paid a couple of hundred quid. His plan was to use them as props in the film then auction them at Sotheby's afterwards and make a small fortune.

As it turned out, the cast and crew (with the exception of Richard E Grant, a teetoller, not that you can tell from his peerless impression of an out-of-control toper) drank the lot, in the space of a fortnight. According to Robinson, 'It was saveloy and chips with...shall we have the Beychevelle or Margaux?' In the end, only the empty bottles remained, Grant sharing the final scene of the film with what was once a '53 Margaux, plus the wolves at London Zoo.

As it turns out, Withnail and I is in reality a rite-of-passage movie, quite touching by the end, but a movie set in such an exorbitantly degenerate landscape that internal and external chaos are only a sudden flinch away. One, also, in which great wines get necked as if they were straight out of the remainders bin. Which is one very good reason why the film is such a classic: its integrity, its fidelity to the whole ethos of derangement is such that not only do its makers appear to be downing the finest wines available to humanity without even a backward glance, they really were downing them. This anarchic generosity of spirit, this crazed identification with the film's characters, floods through the movie itself, making it luminous with truth, and even a rancid kind of love. Is it the last truly great British movie? I'm inclined to hold my glass up to the fading light and repeat the words of Uncle Monty - 'There can be no true beauty without decay,' and nod, sagely.


Thursday 8 November 2012

Dates to remember, remember – Pasico Old Vine Monastrell Shiraz 2011

Wine is for special occasions – that was the attitude of my parents. It’s fortunate for me, however, that whenever I questioned, on special occasions like Father’s or Mother’s Day, why there was no Children’s Day, I was always told (like so many kids) that was because “It’s children’s day every day!” So I feel it’s reasonable to have grown up with the idea that every day is special, with a consequent impact on my wine consumption. 

Some wine writers, however, still cling to the old-fashioned concept of special occasions, and of recommending appropriate wines for them. Which usually ends in a desperate list of wines whose links to the occasion are tenuous at best.

Look at what we had to put up with last week, for Halloween. Only editorial laziness can explain the fatuous recommendations that wine writers offered to celebrate Halloween, a cavalcade of wines of “blood” red or “ghostly” white, or wines which, er, had a skull on their label. If you want wines which are genuinely disturbing, there are several in CJ’s posts, which for less than £5 will really set your stomach churning. 

Or take Valentines Day. According to the Huffington Post, your wine is one of the elements that “will be considered and reconsidered for “maximum love impact”. Perhaps that requires tasting notes from Barry White. The article goes on to propose “Suggestions for a wine that screams ‘I love you!’”, eg it has a name like Saint Amour and Les Amoreuses, or has a heart-shape on its label 

It is invariably a failure when wine writers attempt to recommend particular wines for a particular event. Take wines for Easter, for example. They, of course, will go with lamb. Or chocolate.

What about Pancake Day? Is that even a special occasion? Yet here’s Tesco pitching in with a couple of wine suggestions. Okay, you might want to know which wines go with a tricky combination of lemon and sugar; but how many people are really likely to buy a wine specially to accompany something which is (a) dessert, (b) meant to be made from leftovers, and (c) largely consumed by children?

(The real justification for drinking wines on Shrove Tuesday would surely be to finish them up, as another part of your self-denial of the next forty days. This had clearly not been considered by the Pittsburgh Wine Examiner, who wrote with inappropriate enthusiasm about “Your go-to wines for Lent”!) 

New Year wine recommendations are invariably and understandably about sparkling whites. And they can be quite useful, in differentiating between the cavas, proseccos and champagnes on offer, and their relative prices. But then there’s always the writer who feels the need to recommend something unusual, just to be different. “People might have one glass of sparkling wine,” suggests a CBS Detroit site, “but then they’re looking for something else.” Indeed – a second glass of sparkling wine perhaps? Oh no. 

“Since New Year’s food is usually small bites,” they go on, “we recommend port.” 

Port? Are they insane? New Year hangovers are quite bad enough, without the cerebral devastation wreaked on those celebrating with port

Oh, and I’ve forgotten all of the articles coinciding with various nationalistic occasions. You can forgive the suggestions of English wines for St George’s Day, as with French wine on Bastille Day (although I still prefer commemorating US independence by drinking tea…). But was this writer serious in proposing a St Patrick’s Day recipe for Irish sangria?

So it was with a degree of trepidation that I saw Fiona Beckett, in The Guardian, recommending “the perfect Bonfire night red”. 

But Ms Beckett is a trusted wine writer. (Of course we trust a writer who once generously described Sediment as “A blog well worth reading, people”) And unlike, say, Valentine’s Day, with which there is no associated food, “Bonfire night” immediately suggests simple, warming dishes like sausages and stews, served on a cold Autumnal evening. 

Resisting any impulse to talk about sparklers, or skyrocketing prices (other writers take note), Ms Beckett steered us towards this food-appropriate “rich, spicy” Pasico Old Vine Monastrell Shiraz 2011 from Sainsburys, at just £5.99. The label does not depict flames, fireworks, or immolated effigies of terrorists. And as you can see from the empty bottle, it was thoroughly drinkable, lightly fruity with just a hint of spice to give it character, and no nasty surprises in the throat. 

Mrs K and I drank it happily with our simple Autumnal supper. For once, a thoroughly worthwhile topical recommendation. Just don’t try and tell me I have to wait until November 5th 2013 before drinking it again.


Thursday 1 November 2012

No. 110 - Waitrose Crisp'n'Floral

So it turns out that this is the 110th Sediment posting, unless the blog counter is on the fritz, and I feel I ought to use the moment to take stock in some way. More resonant, yes, if I'd thought to do it for blog no. 100 or even 99, but it didn't come to me in time. Or even blog 101 in a cod-Orwellian way, but anyhow.

What I decide to do is run through all those ghastly past blogs, weed out the ones that are plainly off-piste (talking about glassware, movies, freebies, the Archbishop of Canterbury) and contemplate those in which PK or I have tried a wine and reached a definite judgement on it. Then split those judgements into for and against. Then divide one total by the other to find out whether, on balance, we've drunk more satisfactory wines than unsatisfactory ones; or the other way round.

Absolute hell having to churn through 100+ old posts, as you can imagine, but here, allowing for arithmetical incompetence and general slippages, are the results. We both enjoyed more wines than we didn't enjoy, but the enjoyment rates differed. PK's hit rate was 3:2 - in other words, for every five bottles drunk, three would pass muster (or be positively tasty) and two would fail and be pronounced actively bad. CJ's, on the other hand, was a galloping 3.75:1. For every five bottles, nearly four would be okay, with only one turning out to be an actual dud. What does this tell us?

For a start, it confirms, if you didn't know it already, that if you begin with rock-bottom expectations, as do I, then you're much more likely to be satisfied by whatever comes your way. Although PK occasionally takes a run at some real muck, the sort I like, he spends much more time struggling to find something that meets his unwarrantedly high standards, albeit at a real-world price. But what is the result? More frequent disappointments, despite his years of expertise, high living, trainspotter's tendency to remember things, football-sized wine glasses and so on. Who, therefore, has the happier existence? 

Yes, you might well argue that if the conoisseur's lows are more frequent, the highs compensate by being more satisfying, more life-affirming. The dullard who's content to eat burgers every night will find a regular, unambitious gratification, but will his life be as fully lived as that of the foodhound who once in a while gets to go apeshit over a plate of cailles en sarcophages? Or is the goob with his Burger King actually conserving his energies for a later session with Henry James' The Golden Bowl, a supersubtle pleasure entirely opaque to the foodie, thus balancing out the equation? We don't know, without being given the whole picture.

On the other hand, I am in a position to tell you that although the low-life route looks simple enough to achieve and maintain, it actually takes a great deal of work. How can you not be tempted to go permanently upscale on the rare occasions you get to drink a decent wine? Yes, you say to yourself, holding the glass haughtily up to the light, I could see myself doing more of this. This is where I belong. It takes an almost monastic talent for self-denial to draw breath and remind yourself that drinking well all the time requires an investment of patience and effort, is prone to savage disappointments (PK passim) and costs about three times more money than you currently have. You must instead, as the late Jeffrey Bernard put it, reach for the ground, and always keep that ambition in mind. I mean, I may make it look easy, but it's not, it really is not.

In the light of which, good news at last from Waitrose: they're re-launching their own-brand wines! Apparently, the focus is on 'Provenance, heritage and straightforward styles', with a  mish-mash of red Bordeaux, Cava, a Grenache from southen France, a Chianti, the usual suspects. And at very fair prices: the Chianti coming in at £5.99, a Côtes du Rhone Villages at £6.99. This is exactly the kind of thing I need to keep my standards round about  knee-height, especially with a recently-tested bottle of something called Italian Crisp and Floral (as opposed to Crisp'n Dry, the popular chip oil) an unmissable £4.99. Does it taste of anything? Not that you'd notice: a bit of fragrance about half-way through, quite like Toilet Duck, perfectly pleasant, followed by a slight irritation at the back of the throat. It's alcoholic, which is good. Does it matter that it's neither here nor there? No, it does not. Neither here nor there is perfect. Neither here nor there is exactly where I live. Bring on 111!


Thursday 25 October 2012

A little knowledge – Chateau Saint-Paul 2010

Some say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, which if true would render CJ a public menace. All I can say is that a little knowledge is a time-consuming thing, as I wander in and out of my local wine-retailing establishments, trying to find a wine which accords with my unfortunate combination of high aspirations and low income.

The trouble with learning just a little about wine is that you know only too well why you do not want to buy most of the stuff you can afford. Blended rubbish, plain rubbish, too young, horrible, won’t go (too bland), won’t go (too spicy), can’t imagine that on the table.

It’s Sunday evening, and Mrs K is doing one of her splendid dishes for the two of us. My (supposedly simpler) job is to provide a bottle of wine to accompany it.

I have now calculated that there are some nine establishments within walking distance of my house where I can buy wine, from the posh merchants with an ampersand, through the supermarkets and popular off-licences, to the Mace on the corner. I calculated this by the expedient of visiting all of them in search of a bottle. And out of sheer desperation I ended up in Marks & Spencer, where I spotted this, Chateau Saint-Paul, a 2010 Haut Medoc.

Facing the right way, as it obviously was on the shelf (and as I would ensure on the table) this looks magnificent, reminiscent of Chateau Margaux.  Turn it the wrong way, however, and you are deluged with useless information from Marks & Spencer, telling you how the glass bottle is recyclable, and that you will need a corkscrew to open it. I think even CJ’s little knowledge would stretch that far.

But what really sold it to me was this “shelf-talker” as I believe they are called, quoting Jancis Robinson’s wonderful website:

So, it’s a done deal. Even at three times the amount CJ would spend, it should be worth it for such a claret. 

Now, should I avoid the queues and pay at the self-service till? No, because I am buying a bottle of wine, and despite the fact that its pricepoint is way above that which a teenager would pay to get drunk, the whole supposedly efficient process will have to be halted until an assistant comes over to confirm the sad but blindingly obvious fact that I am over 18.

Would I like to have a bag? Yes, I would rather not wander up the road swinging a naked bottle of claret by the neck like an Indian club. Would I like to have a bag for 5p? No, not unless you have one which does not bear your name. I don’t mind paying for a bag, but I do mind paying to promote your establishment on my journey home.

But my little knowledge was nagging at me while I paid. This is 2010 Bordeaux, a great year I thought, but only just released. Surely it needs more time? Surely this is too young for a good Bordeaux? Not thoughts which would trouble a less-knowledgable M&S customer, who might be expecting wine as fresh as their meat. 

Nevertheless, I was worried enough by my little knowledge to taste the wine while Mrs K was cooking. Its colour was plum, rather than crimson – and it was as firm as a fence. Hard and unyielding, even after a couple of hours. Mrs K’s abrupt verdict was that it tasted like paint, which put a interesting gloss on it.

So I thought after dinner that I ought to check the Purple Pages for myself. Was I right about the vintage? Well, guess what; first, M&S are actually quoting a review of the 2009, not the 2010. In terms of proper Bordeaux, that is not the same wine at all.

And worse in a way, like one of those edited movie reviews, that quote is missing its final punchline: “Only problem is that ideally you should keep it a bit.” 

What Jancis’s site actually says about this wine, the 2010, tasted just last month (Sept 2012), is: “Dark purple. Evolved, rather vegetal wine. Correct and smooth but not very vital. Dead, rather bloody finish. Very chewy finish.” Perhaps not as enthusiastic as the 2009 review they quoted? 

And here’s the thing. Jancis suggests drinking this wine 2015 to 2020. 

Which could be fine, given that Homeland’s not on until 2100. But she’s talking about years. This wine needs to wait for another 3 to 8 years, and Mrs K’s polpette don’t take that long.

Whether they quote the right review or the wrong one, M&S clearly have no intention of telling you the bit in either of them about this wine needing time to mature. Because of course, the average M&S customer is not in the market for a wine to lay down for 8 years. They are buying ready meals, for tonight; the clue is in the word “ready”. M&S wouldn’t sell an apple which wasn’t ready to consume; why do it with a wine?

I should have trusted my little knowledge. It may be a dangerous thing but, like many dangerous weapons, sometimes it’s your only defence.