Friday 27 January 2012

The Nation's Sweetheart: Blossom Hill Winemaker's Reserve Merlot

So my Mum gave me this bottle of Blossom Hill Merlot for Christmas, and I think it's had long enough settling time in the wine rack, so out it comes, a quick inspection of the screw cap and the label to reassure myself of the provenance (California, via a bottling plant in Italy, thence to an importer's at Park Royal in north-west London, then to my Mum's in the Cotswolds and back to me in London) followed by a sigh over the almost lapis lazuli shades of blue on the packaging and…

Well, I'm not going to use this as an opportunity to take a cheap shot at the American genius for doing crappy things extremely professionally (McDonald's burgers, Avatar, Windows 98) because Blossom Hill is not specifically one of those things. It is in fact, an Anglo-American construct, and, according to the Blossom Hill website, is the UK's number one wine brand (both in volume and value). I will not be deterred by that either, nor by the feeling that its incredible ubiquity - you can buy it in petrol stations, corner shops, newsagents, post offices, rural pubs, department stores, on car ferries and at village fetes, to say nothing of in every supermarket in the land - must have something to do with its apparent popularity, nor by the fact that it is currently owned by the colossal British Diageo drinks combine, based at Park Royal, in north-west London. Nor am I going to wonder what the hell the phrase Winemaker's Reserve is doing on something that must be produced by the thousands of litres in industrial wineries and which must travel down kilometres of stainless steel piping before it reaches the table. Nor am I going to profess surprise that the name Blossom Hill is not an exclusively Californian brand but turns out to be a wide-spectrum packaging concept that takes in wines from Italy and France as well as the West Coast. 

In fact, I am not going to bring any bigotries to this party, not least because a quick trawl of what wine drinkers like on the internet reveals that Blossom Hill really is the people's choice: 'I have no idea what makes a good or bad wine,' writes an amateur reviewer, 'but the Blossom Hill Soft and Fruity is a lovely light red wine'; also, from another source, 'One of my favourite red wines, made even better by the fact that it is also one of the cheapest'; and, 'Blossom Hill wines go down lovely with a warm pasta dish';  and, 'At a price of £5.99 a bottle, the Vineyard Collection isn't a bad choice for a weekend tipple'; and, 'You can never go wrong with  big brand wines like Blossom Hill'; and so on. All right, some of those love-ins may have been planted by Diageo employees, but I'm going to infer from their tender illiteracies, grammatical solecisms and general heartfeltness that they're not all shills.

Better yet: I am going to bathe in its outreach, because your Blossom Hill gives you plenty of hand-holding and gentle instruction to help make your encounter a friendly one, unlike flash French wines which try to maintain their cachet by telling you almost nothing about themselves (I know this because PK and I were recently at a chi-chi Burgundy tasting, where some of the grog was £124 per virtually anonymous bottle, and where Oz Clarke looked at us, appalled, and said You bad boys, I suspect because we were marginally lit up on account of swallowing too much and hardly ever spitting, not least because the wines were fantastically tasty as well as sadistically expensive).

I mean, on the front, Blossom Hill tells you what it is, where it came from, who made it, and has a précis of the flavour: Velvety soft with ripe red cherry & dark berry aromas, just so there's no confusion in your mind that you might be getting a stringy white, smelling of gas. On the back, there are messages about pregnancy, recycling, responsible drinking, sharing Blossom Hill with friends (advised) and a Consumer Careline. This is a wine with its own Consumer Careline! Can it get any better?

Yes: when you drink it. My tasting notes read: Interesting tannins, followed by whoof, liquorice, tar and interminable finish. Which so far as I'm concerned, is a result. It didn't taste an awful lot like Merlot (I'll be brutal) until I'd given it a fair breather and served up some warm pasta as an accompaniment. After that? A glow of complacency. It got a bit velvety, in a loon-pants kind of way, and there were dark aromas. The new ad campaign claims that Blossom Hill wines are Award-winning, although I can't see anywhere which awards, but still. This stuff may be commonplace, but it's not contemptible. My plan from here? To get PK round for dinner, decant a bottle of BH into the groovy decanter he gave me in an effort to raise my standards, and not tell him what he's drinking. I predict hilarity will ensue. 


Wednesday 18 January 2012

Back to Basics – Clos La Coutale Cahors

My brother-in-law Nick knows his wine, and enjoys Cru Classé clarets and vintage ports when he can. But he has a particular thing about simpler, more fundamental French wines. What he likes about them is that you somehow feel closer to the soil and the vines. There’s an authenticity about certain French wines, which is almost literally ‘down to earth’. Nick once baffled CJ by talking about how you could ‘taste the stems’. I baffled CJ myself (it’s really not hard…) trying to explain this, by making gestures which were meant to evoke the horny hands of a son of toil, but which unfortunately looked more like an arthritic groper.

Let’s just say that great wines may be like symphonies – but there is a different merit in folk music.

At Christmas, Nick kindly left gifts for Mrs K and I; unlabelled, but I ventured a guess that mine was the one shaped like a bottle. Indeed it was; a bottle of Clos La Coutale 2009 – a Cahors, one of his favourite wines from the South-West of France.

Now, Cahors has a noble heritage. Among the first vineyards planted by the conquering Romans 2000 years ago, their wine was loved by the Russian Tsars, served at Henry II’s wedding to Eleanor of Aquitaine and known as “black wine”, because… well, guess. It’s very dark.

To me, Cahors is a proper peasant’s wine. I have an image of a gnarled old chap in a blue cotton jacket, his face lined and etched by the sun. The sort of chap you look at and think, “If that’s his face, imagine what his scrotum must look like.”

Cahors is, effectively, Malbec – although they call the grape by a different local name (Auxerrois) – and in many cases, it’s softened by blending it, in this case with Merlot. There’s a fierce punchiness about this wine; it’s sharp and light, with an aggressive bouquet and a taut, green flavour. It’s austere, tannic but warm. 

This is a bottle to stand upon a red gingham-checked tablecloth, to pour into Duralex  tumblers, to recork and carry to a corner of a field for a lunch of bread and cheese. The label even has an aged, brownish hue, as if it’s been cured with tobacco smoke, like the ceiling in one of those French rural bars. (Just a step down and a door in a stone wall, and where, once the silence that would greet your entrance had dissolved, you imagine having to defend yourself like a scene out of Straw Dogs…)

So, on a white linen tablecloth, for educated dinner guests? 

The danger here lies in a kind of inverse snobbery, like paying a fortune for peasant cooking in posh restaurants. Are we in the social guilt-making territory of slumming, by enjoying a degree of crude, a bit of rough? I’m reminded of a cartoon of American tourists abroad, buying handmade indigenous artefacts to take back home, with a local craftsman pointing out that “This one, senor, has even more flaws…!”

Then, thanks to Liberty Wines, who kindly invited Sediment to their 15th anniversary portfolio tasting, I was able to compare two “better” versions of this wine. 

Chateau de Chambert Cahors Grand Vin 2007 at £16.97, is almost double the price of my traditional Cahors. It’s clearly aiming for greater status, greater finesse and elegance – look at its modern label – look at its price! – and despite being 100% Malbec it’s a more relaxed wine altogether, with the additional smoky richness of a couple of years’ aging. But that also means more sleepy, less alert somehow; that tight, green simple taste has softened into something lazier, more comfortable, more…decadent. Perhaps a Cahors Grand Vin is something of an oxymoron – like a gourmet Cornish pasty.

And then there’s Argentina, who have made the Malbec grape their own. Vista Flores, a single vineyard Malbec from one of the top five Argentinian producers, has a price of £42.50, a significant sum for any peasant, and which would send CJ into cardiac arrest. But oh, this is a glorious wine, rich, heavy and more substantial – 100% Malbec again, and in a way, more palatable, easier and certainly more impressive drinking than its blended peasant alternative. (The Valle de Uco Malbec,  from the same producer, is slightly sweeter but less grand, and great value at £10.63). 

But these cleverly created wines are also less…discursive. They have less to say. A wine like Cahors has character, a simple authenticity, which is enormously enjoyable. It is Fourme d’Ambert to their Lymeswold.

And here’s a final irony. In London, Clos La Coutale is sold for £8.95 by Berry Bros & Rudd,  one of our most aristocratic wine merchants, by Royal appointment to both HM The Queen and HRH The Prince of Wales. 

But then, our aristocracy always were better than the French at dealing with the peasantry. As that great English historian GM Trevelyan pointed out, “If the French noblesse had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt.”


Thursday 12 January 2012

Festive Drinking - Miwok Ridge Shiraz

So Christmas came and went with the usual Cava cock-up from Tesco: they delivered the order (some Cordoniu 1551, rather a step up for us, very tasty when it finally arrived) ten days late and then delivered it again, five days after that, minus one bottle, a second, uninvited case of eleven bottles. The courier blamed Tesco, Tesco sighed with exasperation down the phone about the couriers. This makes three out of four Tesco deliveries that have gone cranky on us. I'm sure our house is on a ley line but everyone else can manage it.

Things improved when my brother-in-law came round with his partner for supper on the 23rd, with a properly uncompromising bottle of JackTone Ranch Pinot Noir, while on Christmas Day, my Ma gave me a nice bottle of Blossom Hill Merlot which she bought at the Post Office. I've laid it down until next week, looking forward to drinking it.

After this it was on to my Pa-in-law's. He has a kink for something called Pilastro, fruity, shouty, which one gets to quite like, not as much as he likes it, but enough all the same, and that was going okay until he produced a magnum of - I can't remember what, exactly, a Cabernet Sauvignon it might have said on the label, but either way it was unashamedly perverse, tasting of treacle and earwax and wood glue. And a magnum: since we were the only two people drinking it, it seemed to last forever, but what can you do? He was savouring it as if it might have been a three-figure Margaux. 'This certainly packs a punch,' I managed to say. I mean it would have been churlish to bitch about this endless bottle of wine, but two days went by and I don't think we managed to finish it, despite our best efforts, my bowels slowly turning into tyre compound. And while, as it turned out, PK was doing his impersonation of Lord Snooty and his Pals, drinking a drink with two K's in its name, several hundred miles away, which I'm glad I didn't know at the time.

Which is churlish of me because the same Pa-in-law had already sent me a case of Miwok Ridge Californian Shiraz (2010 vintage), and this is an assertive, alarmingly candid wine, a wine with, frankly, pubic hair; but in a way that causes surprisingly little offence. According to the instructions, the drink takes its name from the Miwok Indians (they're still around) and is 'Soft and supple'. This latter is not true. The first glassful I poured was so volcanic I had to leave it on the table for an hour while it fizzed and burped in the glass, but once I'd got used to the gusts coming out, I found myself rather liking it: peppery, tarry, all that - and with incredible staying power. It doesn't seem to matter how long you leave an already-opened bottle before you return to it, the flavour only softens and becomes more obliging. Three and a half days is the most I've had one bottle on the go so far, but I'm tempted to try for the full week.

In fact, I may use this experience to take a proper, or at least half-arsed, interest in Shiraz/Syrah wherever it occurs. As far as I can see, wine made from this grape almost always delivers something, and quite probably what I want. I can't count the number of Cabernet Sauvignon mixtures I've drunk which have been like old fountain pen ink or rusty rainwater, whereas the most bolted-together Mediterranean supermarket Shiraz/Syrah has usually managed to entertain, even it meant drinking it with oven gloves. My tiny moment of revelation for 2012, and I have the Pa-in-law to thank for it.

So how was it for you?


Wednesday 4 January 2012

A case of social aspiration – Kopke 1983 Vintage Port

There is this gentlemanly thing surrounding vintage port. The great port houses were founded by English merchants, who established a unique relationship with the English aristocracy. When the ladies left a dining room, it was port which emerged to lubricate an Englishman’s serious discussions. And like any English social activity, there are a whole set of rules and rituals surrounding the “proper’ drinking of port. Just the sort of historical baggage to lure someone like myself. 

Indeed, we have our own historical baggage, port and I. The blame lies with a long-gone place called Champagne Charlie’s, a faux Victorian establishment on the Essex Road in the 1980s. Its artificiality was highlighted by its location on the edge of a modern housing estate, its wood panelling and sawdust floor entirely failing to disguise a construction alien to Victorian builders. 

In an effort to appear historic, and recreate the quaffing culture on which I have had cause to comment before, Champagne Charlie’s sold pints of port. Pints. In fact, their full quaffing experience, of which I foolishly partook in my late twenties with a friend, involved a copper jug, and two pewter pint tankards.

As a fortified wine, port actually contains within itself the very combination of wine and spirits which supposedly leads to the worse type of hangover. So I drank it with a kind of bravado, in much the same way as the Japanese eat fugu.

I clearly thought of myself as a successor to John ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton, the legendary 19th century squire who could drink eight bottles of port a day, starting the first while shaving. However, what actually accompanied my own depilation next morning was the most painful, blinding headache which I have ever experienced. That morning explained to me why Norwegians refer to a hangover as jeg har tommermenn – "I have carpenters in my head".

Having decided that I was not Squire Mytton, nor was meant to be, I returned to a single glass after formal dinners. Port remains a stranger to my shaving routine. 

But after Christmas dinner that year, I told this story as a tale of alcoholic braggadocio. “A pint, eh?” said a relative, “Well, if you like your port, I can get some rather good value vintage Kopke at the moment.” The 1983 vintage had just been declared. Kopke is the oldest of all the port houses, and a bottle of vintage port seemed the sort of thing I should show an eagerness to acquire. So of course, I agreed.

A few weeks later, I was at work when he rang. “Just to let you know,” he said, “that I’ve got that case of port for you.”

Case. Not a bottle, a case. Twelve bottles…

As someone with gentlemanly aspirations, I should have understood the quantities in which one orders one’s port. The mistake was clearly mine. In which case, like a chap accidentally shooting a beater, one simply shut up, and paid up. 

I wrote the cost on the case itself, to remind me - £108.68. It was a significant sum to someone in their late twenties back then. Particularly because it was invested in an entire case of port, which was not to be drunk for many years, and which would last me for a further twelve years after that, barring an unlikely increase in the frequency of Christmas.

So began years of toting this case around. It went from flat to house, from furniture storage facility to sister-in-law’s garage. Yes, I could have paid to keep it in proper wine storage – but by now, I would have spent more in storage fees than I spent on the port. (£10 a year storage sounds like nothing, until you think about storing a case for 25 years…)

And then, a quarter-century later, it all came good. I now have not only a case of seriously mature port, worth about £50 a bottle today, but have acquired more relatives who would appreciate it. Sharing your port is perhaps the best way to drink it without a hangover, since it both limits your own consumption yet multiplies the pleasure. And, dare I imagine that it imparts a certain gentlemanly quality to one’s dining table? It was time to broach the case.

The bottles are sealed with hard, brittle wax – literally sealing wax – which shatters all over the option when you start to remove it. Beneath are corks which have clearly suffered over the last 28 years. Some have leaked slightly, and below the first centimetre have the consistency of muesli. They disintegrate even when handled with the caution of a bomb disposal operative. But that’s okay, since the sediment in vintage port requires that it’s decanted. Even the label suggests it should be served with care, which makes a change from serving it with Stilton.

Some people expect vintage port to be unctuous and syrupy, like a dessert wine. In fact, this is light and pale brick-coloured. It has a raisiny bouquet, sharpened by the alcohol, and in the mouth it’s rich and aromatic, a soft, dried-fruit and burnt toffee flavour with enormous complexity, which resonates around the palate and nose and is immensely warming. It is delicious.

Why at Christmas? Well, that feels like a time for Victorian traditions. It brings a lot of people together around a dining table. And it’s an occasion. This is proper, vintage port, not one of the lesser variations which my father-in-law dismisses as “grocer’s port”. Having gone to all this trouble, over such a long time, I shall not be opening a bottle after a TV dinner.

And I want it to last. Because, by the time of the final bottle, I may still not be a gentleman - but I will certainly be too old to go through the whole of this 40-year process again.