Wednesday 29 February 2012

Fine wine & footwear: Domaines des Pierres Blanches Faugères 2008

Bear with me. I’m going to compare a wine to a pair of socks. But that's not a tasting note. 

My colleague CJ has occasionally purchased a repellent bottle of sub-£5 wine which actually tastes like a pair of old socks. But not me. Oh no.

I was back at the wine shelves of my local Mace. It’s been a long time since my last desperate visitbut it was one of those nights; Mrs K was out, I couldn’t justify opening a decent bottle from the cellar, and the bright lights of the High Road beckoned. 

For those who do not know (Good morning, America!), Mace is a franchised convenience store business in the UK, something akin to a 7-Eleven. And along with the usual groceries, they also sell alcohol, their window sticker promoting themselves for “When you want a bottle of the good stuff.”

Thank goodness for the licensing regulations in the UK which mean that a corner shop can sell wine. It’s just the notion of “good stuff” which might be a little contentious. For I later discovered their handy online “guide to selling more wine”,  where they observe that “You don’t have to be a master of wine to be the master of a profitable wine range in a convenience store.” 

And sure enough, neither of my assistants had the air of an MW about them. One, behind the counter, was having a lively and clearly uninterruptable conversation on his mobile phone; I couldn’t identify the language, but the word ‘passeport’ featured frequently and urgently. The ability to simultaneously conduct a sale and a phone conversation is nowadays a key skill of London’s convenience store assistants. The ability to assist is not.

The other ‘assistant’ is sweeping the floor. Given that he is wearing a taqiyah prayer cap, he is also unlikely to be an MW. When it comes to the wine, I’m clearly on my own.

The store has a surprising number of wines on display, over some half-dozen shelves. I can easily spot the branded, blended rubbish to avoid – the Echo Falls, First Cape, Falling Leaf and Kumala, all coming in at under five or six quid. But the strange thing is that every other bottle I pick up seems to cost £8.99.

Bordeaux? £8.99. New World Cabernet Sauvignon? £8.99. Burgundy? Burgundy?? Go on, hazard a guess - £8.99. 

Now perhaps there is some brilliantly astute purchasing going on here. Or, they know that we locals will pay £8.99 for a late-night bottle of red wine and that’s it, regardless. Perhaps they really are all of an identical quality. Or perhaps the price-labelling gun got stuck. 

But actually, £8.99 is not that cheap. (Just ask CJ…) For nine quid I expect a decent bottle of wine. And, drawing upon all my encyclopaedic knowledge of wine (hem, hem), there is nothing here which I recognise as decent – let alone “a bottle of the good stuff”.

So the strategy I adopted was this. Forget “the good stuff”, forget the appellations you usually desire, and pick the most modest type of wine possible. Nothing with aspirations of grandeur, nothing trading off a grand heritage, nothing hanging on the coattails of big names and Grand Crus. God knows I trawl the wine merchants of the UK hoping to find decent Bordeaux for under £10, let alone Burgundy, and it’s pretty unlikely to have materialised here, opposite the Pot Noodles. So a minor appellation must be a better bet.

Faugères is a small Languedoc appellation, only created in 1982. Its wine is founded upon the Carignan grape, which can be a bit stern and unforgiving; but Domaine des Pierres Blanches declared itself as a blend with three other varieties.

And then, given it was all I had to go on, there was the label. Obviously not trading on ‘heritage’, if dangerously reminiscent of an IKEA print. Was it naïve to think that, with an image of the wine’s stony origins on the label – and the word schist on the back to describe it – this was a contemporary winemaker who rated their terroir as significant?

Back home, the Carignan nose was rather threateningly light industrial, but after sitting in the glass for a bit, this settled into a soft, fleshy wine; still with rigour around the edges, slightly grippy and chewy, but with some dried fruit notes to add interest. I wouldn’t have drunk it eagerly on its own, but it went perfectly well with my dull, feed-yourself food. A well-made lesser wine, as opposed to a poor imitation of something great; and having seen that UK wine merchant prices are all around £8 a bottle, I don’t think a further 99p was too much extra to pay for the convenience. 

Oh yes, the socks. It all reminded me of the chap who, as a teenager, was sent up to town by his mother with money to buy a new pair of shoes. He came back instead with a pair of cashmere socks. His argument was that with the sum he had been given for footwear, he could either have bought a pair of inferior shoes, mere imitations of excellence – or the best socks that money could buy.  

See what I mean?


Thursday 23 February 2012

Buying In Bulk: Shiraz, and plenty of it

As a rule, whenever I buy wine, I march robotically over to the booze section of the supermarket, stand in front of hundreds of unknowable bottles and special offers and bargain disasters for about thirty seconds, then reach out as if in a trance and grab the first bottle that costs about £5. That's it. Everything after that is a matter of destiny.

There is, I know, a grown-up way of acquiring drink, which is to ascertain your preferences beforehand then buy in bulk, a couple of cases at a time, and work your way complacently through the contents. Well, I have two problems with this. First, I can never remember what I like, or if, indeed, I actually like anything. Second (and more pressing) is that even if I can think of something that might be worth drinking, whenever this household orders even the most pitiable caseful of wine, something goes wrong with the delivery.

Tesco are a case in point, with their four deliveries and three monumental cock-ups. But it's not just them. The wife rather daringly went to popular winesellers Laithwaites to order a case of my pa-in-law's favourite wine and have it sent direct to his address as a Christmas present. Fine, the stuff turned up. But the pa-in-law already had an account with Laithwaites, so they billed him for his own present, instead of billing my wife. She called them up, explained, they said of course, we'll sort it out. What happened? Next time my pa-in-law put in for an order of his own, my wife got billed for it and he didn't. This makes no sense. They don't have the same names, they don't live in the same part of the country, they don't share credit cards. How can this happen?

Buying in bulk in person doesn't work much better. The doomed Oddbins (now relaunched, may God save their souls) would sell you plenty of stuff in one go, but it tasted terrible. My most recent visit to a cave in the south of France was so frosty that I ended up buying nothing at all. And I can't be arsed to get down to the nearest Majestic (all of half a mile away) because the parking's rubbish.

Nevertheless, in a last throw of the dice, I have been tormenting myself with the thought of going to France on a day trip, buying a load of cheap grog and bringing it back in the car. Ever since the Pound collapsed against the Euro a few years ago, the idea of the booze cruise has rather tanked, but then my brother-in-law, who has an almost obsessional interest in doutbful bargains, started explaining about some outfit that covers the cost of your ferry ticket provided you buy £200 or more of booze, or at least they give you a voucher for the next time you cross.

Actually, just looking at it, now, in black and white, I can see what a terrible idea this is, involving the purchase of a huge amount of wine I can't afford, plus fuel expenditure, plus the certainty that when I get my £200 of drink back home, it will turn out to be every bit as awful as the stuff I habitually buy from the supermarket. And my car's falling to pieces, so I probably won't even make it as far as Dover.

There must be some way round this. Perhaps I should try and get PK in on the scheme, not least because he has a newish executive-style saloon which won't break down on the M20. 

The drawback with that is that he'll insist on high-end purchases such as cellophane-wrapped ham rolls on the ferry. When we get to the outlet in Calais, he'll want bottles of wine that have dates on them. Plus one of those terrible, terrible bourgeois restaurant meals you get all over France where the food tastes of mud and the service is mediaevally bad and it costs a fortune: 'Thus losing a significant percentage of what you have just saved' as my bro-in-law (who used to be a finance director) observes.

Look: I just want enough everyday Shiraz, from almost any country, to be able to bathe in. Is that so unreasonable?


Thursday 16 February 2012

Getting aerated: Vidigal Dão D.O.C. 2008

An evening at home alone; no better way of alleviating that than a nice bottle of red. Cheap, obviously – this was for me alone. But this is where a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

One of the most enjoyable wines I have ever come across is the deliciously supple, bright and beautifully balanced Quinta do Correio, a Dão red available from the Marylebone wine merchants and bar Vinoteca. I managed to get CJ to drink it there just before Christmas, by the ruse of buying a bottle before he arrived, and hence before he could complain about the price to drink it at a table (£21.75) – and even he was very happy with it. (Even happier when they offered it at the excellent takeaway price of £9.30 if we vacated our table, to somebody eating, and finished our drinking at the bar.) So I thought I knew something about Dão. 

So when I saw this Dão, with its elegant, minimal label, reduced in a City wine merchant’s sale from £7.95 to £4.95. I fooled myself into thinking that it was not one of CJ’s sub-£5 gut-rot specials. Oh no, this was a bargain, spotted by my knowledgeable eye. Spotted, admittedly, in a bin of wines with a big sign saying “Under £5”, but nevertheless.

The assistant went on for a bit, saying that she’d tasted it, how it needed to rest for a bit before drinking, etc etc. The back label endearingly described it as “A Soft medium bodied Dão wine to your delight” (sic). And I uttered the fatal words, “Well, how far wrong can you go for £4.95?” 

To which a suitable response might have been, “Have you got your passport?”

Because this was a wiry, thin wine, unpleasant bordering on undrinkable. It had to be forced down, with my cheeks contracting like salted slugs. Its bouquet – no, correction, its fumes – reminded me of bathroom cleanser; it was bitter on the palate, and even sat in my stomach like a large, cold stone.

But one of our mottos is “I’ve bought it, so I’ll drink it”; I had planned a cosy evening alone with this bottle, and I was damned if it was going to beat me. 

So, remembering the suggestion that it needed to rest for a bit, I thought I would try putting it through my recently-acquired Soirée aerator (as seen in the neck of the bottle above).

I already possess an aerator called a Magic Decanter, a gift from my offspring, about which I will write at length some day. But I am particularly proud of my new Soirée, because I won it in a competition on the excellent Blogyourwine site, with the kind of display of my wine knowledge which exasperates CJ, and leaves him glowering at me like a disgruntled Fred Emney

I was determined not to be put off by the Soirée’s resemblance to an optic spirit measure, which suggested I might be intending to consume my wine by the shot. No, the wine swirls around in this little glass bowl as it leaves the bottle, and is thereby immediately aerated like a spell in a decanter.

And yes, the Soirée did soften the acridity of the wine quite considerably. Indeed, it could be said that the very name promises a softening of one’s drinking. Had I now embarked upon a soirée, with all its sophisticated undertones, and not just an evening of quite basic solo bottle-bashing?

Sadly not. Aeration cannot transform bad wine into good, and a softer bad wine is still…bad. I became steadily angrier at the stuff I was drinking, and the lengths to which I was going in order to try and render it drinkable. The effort/reward ratio was badly, badly skewed. Instead of returning to a relaxed and gently inebriated husband, Mrs K came home to find a fizzing ball of frustration, surrounded by half-finished glasses of wine; aerated, unaerated, poured, decanted and rested. And all, in their various ways, vile.

Mrs K will agree. There’s one thing that doesn’t benefit from getting aerated. Me.


Thursday 9 February 2012

Time for a drink? Miwok Ridge Shiraz (Again)

The earliest I think I've started drinking wine was about eight in the morning. Not my suggestion, I should point out: we were staying with a friend of ours who lived in a converted pigshed near Barcelona, nicer than it sounds, the ground floor still indefinably murky but nevertheless good for somewhere that had recently housed animals. And for breakfast, on the penthouse floor, two stories up, our host cheerfully sliced up a beefsteak tomato, cut a round of bread, laid the the tomato on the bread, and poured a glass of rough red wine over the whole thing.

'Breakfast Catalan style,' he said. 'Do you want some?' I joined him for the sake of form, obviously, but the kids were a bit young at the time and the wife just stood there looking appalled.

When he next came over to our place to stay, he arrived from the airport with a vast wheelie suitcase which he hauled along our path and up our steps like a gun carriage. He was gasping for breath and fanning his armpits as it rumbled to a halt in the hallway.

'What's in it?' I said. 

He opened it up: it contained four five-litre plastic carboys, like the one I used for my precious petrol-pump Ventoux, full of incredibly cheap red wine; plus a tiny brick of fresh socks and pants, wedged into the bottom.

'They put anti-freeze into it,' he said, gesturing at the red stuff in the carboys, 'and sugar. To make it more drinkable.'

He had it for breakfast, with some fried eggs.

The earliest I started spontaneously drinking, as opposed to merely joining in, was also around eight in the morning, at Marco Polo airport, near Venice. We had all formed a queue at the cafe bar for a breakfast cup of coffee, and some deviltry made me ask, not for a flabby cappuccino, but for a heart-starting caffé corretto, that (typically) brilliant Italian confection of an espresso with a shot of grappa in it - the espresso buzzing you up, the grappa mellowing you out, till you reach a state of god-like acuity and inner balance, a state in which no situation - like getting a bargain flight back to London - is too depressing to deal with.

'It's a bit early, isn't it?' a man behind me said, so I leered back at him, 'It's never too early for this.' He looked appalled.

And then there was the Calvados I was offered in the middle of the morning, in Normandy, to keep the cold out. Various ouvriers were supping away in this bar at Un p'tit Calva, also to keep the cold out, before going back to operating heavy machinery, handling explosives etc., but seemed unconcerned. This time it was my turn to look appalled but I had one anyway, before going out and nearly being run down by a man full of Calvados, driving a backhoe loader. It was about eleven a.m.

How early is too early for a drink, then? I only ask because it's not yet six o'clock – pm, I hasten to add, but no-one in our house is allowed a drink before six o'clock, on account of it being The Road To Ruin. Obviously if I'm going out on the lash with PK, this condition is capable of being modified, but normally nothing happens until we've reached that existential moment, that six o'clock, that philosophical sundown, but today it seems as if the existential moment is never quite going to realise itself, and I am filled with a sense of unease made worse somehow by the fact that I know what I'm going to be drinking - more of that Miwok Ridge stuff from Tesco, the Creosote's Revenge - and therefore it has no terrors, only the promise of an affordable homecoming and a slightly tarry sensation between the ears, and yet time stands still, and if I was our friend who lives in Spain and packs twenty litres of sewage-treatment red wine just to come to England, I'd already have made a start, but that's as it may be, and it's only just five o'clock! but the Calvados workmen, they'll have made a start, and so will some other lucky swines who knocked off early or enjoyed the advantages of living in a different time zone, I can't help but think to myself as the clock on the screen labours past the five-thirty mark...

Not quite forty minutes to go. And in Bucharest it's already half-past seven!


Thursday 2 February 2012

The great wine & game con trick – Les Garrigues Carignan 2010

“Goes well with game” – how often do you read that about a wine? But how often do you actually eat game? Exactly.

Most people are ignorant of game. There are many for whom a partridge will only ever be a bird that spends its Christmas in a pear tree. 

But wine merchants clearly think that, by associating a wine with game, they are somehow imbuing that wine with posh, aristocratic qualities – qualities which would not accrue from an association with, say, sausages. Suddenly, they think, that wine will appeal to people who like to imagine themselves going out on a Downton Abbey shooting party.They may not actually eat game, or even know how it tastes – but they will buy a wine which they believe might, on some stately dining table, accompany it.

Such people might visit Berry Bros & Rudd, who, with their Royal appointments, are probably the most aristocratic of what I always describe as the Ampersand wine merchants. This is clearly the place to go if you’re looking for wine to accompany game; just Search various possible main courses, and see how many wines come up. On the day I did this it suggested:

Beef 22 wines
Fish 52
Lamb 27
Pork 9
and Game…53

Are we actually supposed to believe that the aristocracy need twice as many recommendations for game suppers as they do for beef or lamb? To meet that level of consumption, they’d have to be taking to the moors with sub-machine guns.

Or take Majestic, for example, a merchant surely more representative of the wider UK wine-buying public. Their Search pairs some 45 wines with lamb, 43 with fish and 17 with sausages. But they also pair 16 wines with game. Do Majestic customers really need as many wines to match game as they do to match sausages?

And ironically, Majestic seem completely confused about the style of wine which actually pairs with game. Because according to their own style descriptions, the wines they recommend are either: medium-bodied (6); rich, spicy (5); light, elegant (3); full and fruity (1); or powerful (1). You might just as well pick a wine blindfolded.

In any case, what is this blanket term, “game”? Game ranges from the delicate flavour of partridge, through the richness of venison and the darkness of hare to, say, snipe, a bird whose flavour is described as “a woody flavour similar to sweetly rotting wild mushrooms”. (That description is from Rules, a restaurant which I adore for its game, but which clearly has problems understanding the notion of “appetising”.)

There are too many wines, of too great a variety, being recommended to pair with game, for it to be anything other than a marketing exercise. Which is really a pain, when you actually do want a wine to go with game.

Which I did. For here is my supper of pheasant breasts. Now, I realise, because of the aforementioned associations, that this will only fuel CJ’s notion that I am some aspirational Lord Snooty. But in fact this was wire-basketed from Sainsbury’s, at a meagre £4 for two. Pheasant like this lies somewhere between the texture of pork and the taste of chicken, and is quite mild in flavour. (Remember that traditionally, game is hung for a week or so to decompose and give it that “gamey” flavour; in Sainsbury’s meat department, decomposition is not actively encouraged.)

Now, happy as I am to display my skills as plating up – are you watching, John Torode? – I could not begin to pretend that this is an inherently aristocratic meal. Believe me, I am not wearing white tie. Not even black tie. Not even a tie. The closest my supper got to a shooting party is this rogue piece of lead shot, which almost cracked a tooth.

So I thought I should pair it with a wine which (a) claimed on its back label to go with game, but which (b) an aristo would not touch with a shooting stick. Or, for that matter, his woodcock.

Les Garrigues Carignan 2010 was kindly sent to me by the nice people at It’s a wine from the Mont Tauch co-operative in the Languedoc, rapidly becoming a handy imprimatur for decent cheaper wines. Les Garrigues has a light, fruity nose with a burnt edge, and tastes of sharper fruits like plums and damsons. But with its tannins resolved, the result is slightly shallow; it’s alright with my fresh, supermarket pheasant, but definitely lacks the weight I would want to accompany serious game. A reasonable buy at its French price of 5.60, but nothing special at its UK price of £8.75 – and isn’t game supposed to be special?

This wine would be unlikely to find its way onto a stately dining table. Carignan is a grape historically associated with table and country wines; unlikely to appeal to an aristo trying to impress his chums. Especially when the wine comes from a co-operative, which sounds dashed close to Communism. And most old-school toffs want their chummies to think they paid more than a tenner for their vino, so even if it’s not terribly good, they tend towards tried and trusted B&B – Bordeaux and Burgundy. 

No, this wine is more appropriate for those of you who think “beaters” are chaps who drink Stella. 

So don’t believe the merchants. There is nothing inherently posh about wine which goes well with game. It’s a pretty arcane pairing, given the small amounts of game people actually consume; and pretty pointless, given the variety of game itself. It is a description simply trading upon our notion of class.

Which may, in itself, be misplaced. Peter Jay once memorably wrote in Oxford Today, “As for the aristocracy, are they not better left where PG Wodehouse safely bestowed them, as objects of derision?”

As for me, I shall return to a social position in which snipe and grouse are merely descriptions of my behaviour.