Thursday 29 March 2012

The joy of mediocre wine – San Silvestre Piemonte Barbera 2010

The old saying has it that life is too short to drink bad wine. But no-one says anything about the so-so stuff.

Indeed, it’s rare to even read about so-so wine. No-one bothers to write about mediocrity. Oh, CJ may write about the truly awful; and I may, occasionally, have an opportunity to write about something really good. But what about the stuff in the middle?

Because surely that’s what most of us drink, most of the time. Wine that’s…okay. Wine they had in the shop around the corner when we stopped in on the way home from work. One of those days, a basic supper ahead, and a bottle of wine seems like a good idea, to enliven the meal and soften the edges of the evening…

(Or is that all just me…?)

We actually consume a lot of mediocrity in our lives. How many of us, for example, always buy really good, artisan-made bread? It’s not that much more expensive than the stuff in the supermarket, but it’s so much nicer; you just have to spend a little more, and make a bit of an effort to get it, and store it in a proper bin, and consume it at its best… so mostly we just get the good stuff when guests are coming, or for special occasions… sorry, are we still talking bread here, or wine?

And I do buy mediocre wine as I would buy a loaf of convenient, mediocre bread. Which is where I run into trouble; thanks to my possession of a modest cellar – or, as my good wife describes it, “a load of wine in the basement”.

Perhaps understandably, it confuses Mrs K’s notion of rational housekeeping that I return to the house bearing random and potentially rubbish bottles when I have “a load of wine in the basement”.

But the stuff down there is not mediocre. (If it is, I shall be having words with Mr Berry, and his Brothers to boot.) It would be absurd to start stashing cases of mediocre wine. Why would I do that? The cellar is for hopefully good, interesting wine, which is trying my patience as it waits to reach its peak. It follows the simple rule I established for those wanting to know how to start a wine collection: 1) Buy wine 2) Don’t drink it!

No, mediocre wine is for imminent consumption, and is bought casually, hidden beneath the toilet rolls in the wire basket, emerging guiltily at the till along with the chocolate ice-cream and the Pringles.

Perhaps what’s awkward about so-so wine is that some of the more serious aficionados will ask why one bothers to drink it at all. Is it simply in order to get drunk?

Well, no. Any drinkable wine will enhance a meal for me. It may not be a transcendent experience, but then, neither are my sausages.

And mediocre wine offers its own, unique pleasure; the gratification of bringing a single, random bottle back home and finding that you called it well. It’s not so bad you can’t drink it. (But neither is it so good that you feel annoyed there is no gathering to share it.) 

Of course, if it turns out to be an unexpected bargain, that’s another matter. To find a drinkable wine for under £10 is a treat, and makes the consumption an event in itself, infused with that wonderful flavour enhancer, smugness. 

But you run the risk of frustration, because you only bought one bottle and for whatever reason, you find you can’t get any more. The whole episode is then soured with frustration, because you’ve found a bargain but you’ve opened your only bottle (see my Lanciola chianti). So bizarrely, a mediocre wine can actually be more satisfying than a bargain.

Which is how I come to be writing about this San Silvestre Piemonte Barbera 2010. It came from the wine merchants on the High Road, who shall remain nameless (because the last time I named them Sediment was subjected to a barrage of ‘anonymous’ astroturf  comments). I wanted something Italian, to go with some sausage pasta, and I had drunk my remaining solitary bottle of bargain chianti. And there was this bottle, with its reasonable price, acceptable provenance, and tolerable label. Mediocrity personified.

And it’s…okay. It has a light, yeasty bouquet, and on the palate a slightly fruity, slightly spicy flavour. It slips easily down and away, leaving just a hint of pepperiness in the throat. It’s okay on its own, and okay with food. At £7.50, it was neither an astonishing disappointment nor a cracking bargain. All round, it was…okay.

So look, don’t rush out and buy it – but if you’re stuck, don’t turn your nose up at it, either. 

I shall not, of course, rest easy. Disraeli said, “It is a wretched taste to be gratified with mediocrity when the excellent lies before us.” But in the meantime, hey-ho, and serve the sausages.


Thursday 22 March 2012

The Museum of Drinks: Gusano Rojo Mezcal

So we have a tray sitting on top of our 48-bottle wine rack in the kitchen and on this tray live gin, whisky, vodka, plus one or two extras such as Cassis and Noilly Prat, the little Manhattan of vertical bottles. We consume these beverages frequently and with evident enjoyment. But behind them stands the Musuem of Drink, the place where old booze goes into a grimy death-in-life, a row of crappy tenements hidden behind the Fifth Avenue facades we want people to see.

What are these dismal drinks and why have we got them?

- Lamb & Watt Carta Negra dark rum (from Guyana, it says on the label). The wife thinks we might have bought it to try and recreate the rum punches we once had in Barbados (one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak, as the recipe had it). There's plenty left. I assume that whatever kind of punch we managed to cobble together back at home tasted appalling.

- Lamb & Watt Grenadine. This is purely a sentimental bottle, not a bottle for drinking. The wife has had it with her in all her houses/flats/digs, over the years, faithful as a puppy, following her from place to place, a memento of her youth when it was given to her by someone. We couldn't drink it even if we wanted to, because the cap is now welded on with fluff, corrosion and a kind of Grenadine gum.

- Tesco Value Brandy. Cooking purposes?

- Angostura Bitters. Every five years or so I make myself a pink gin with this stuff, or even a Champagne Cocktail. Borderline functionality, but how long can it last? It must date back to the John Major years.

- Two bottles of Old Lady's Gin (it really is called that; you get it in France) now containing two kinds of home-made sloe gin, both undrinkable (we've tried them with both Champagne and tonic, still ghastly) but we spent so much time collecting the sloes we can't bring ourselves to throw the stuff out.

- Grappa from Waitrose. Originally we had a bottle of Kosher Slivovitz which a friend gave us as a sarcastic going-away present. It was so disgusting that I actually threw it away. But it seems we must always have at least one bottle of transparent filth, so the grappa crept in to take its place. Normally I quite like grappa, and I quite like Waitrose, but this stuff smells authentically like the oil refinery at Fawley, opposite Southampton. God knows why.

- Gusano Rojo Mezcal. The (teenage) kids made us get this when we were on holiday in Mexico. They drank a bit of it then wisely walked away. I have only ever sniffed it. The Mezcal Worm lies at the bottom of the bottle: you're supposed to fight mano a mano for the right to eat that worm (after you've drunk the rest of the bottle's contents) and thereby be vouchsafed some kind of cosmic insight. The only person I know who claims to have done this said he won the mano a mano fight, ate the worm, and promptly passed out for twelve hours of complete oblivion.

There are essentially two reasons why we have kept this muck for as long as we have. Sentiment - holiday nostalgia, personal history - is clearly one. The other is Visual Ballast: we want to create something of that sense of largesse you get in upper-middle-class drawing-rooms, where a tray (usually silver) stands in the corner of the room, bearing gin, whisky, sherry, port, some smart crystal tumblers, demanding that you have a drink. When of course you do ask for something, your host has to leg it to the kitchen and fill the ice bucket and make sure he's got enough tonic water and generally curse and strain, but still. You also find the Posh Tray in chi-chi country house hotels where they invite you to help yourself, but be sure to fill in the twee honesty book standing handily by. At any rate, it suggests a certain quality of life.

Only our Posh Tray is filthy and crowded with bottles of ordure. There is no other consumable that we could or would dare keep in this way - apart from that bit of our wedding cake, preserved somewhere at the back of a cupboard, although it may have been eaten by weevils - so why this, with all its neglect, its mixed messages, its terminal inertia? It's like keeping a mummified banana, or a packet of 1950s biscuits.

It is, in fact, one of those mirrors of the soul. Find someone's Drinks Tray, and you find a part of their inner self. In our case the Drinks Tray announces to the world the fact that we are sentimental, lazy, and slightly pretentious. A judgement which I would reckon firm but fair. So what's on yours?


Thursday 15 March 2012

Was that wine expensive? – Lanciola Chianti 2007

We do suffer difficult questions about wine from our nearest and dearest. And we’re not talking vintage comparisons, or the merits of Bordeaux vs Burgundy. If only. The most challenging wine question from my own spouse is, “Are you going to drink all of that?”

My oppo CJ recently had to deal with the particularly loaded marital query, “Is it something to do with Sediment?” I, too, have encountered this particular question, when discovered one Sunday morning drinking wine with my breakfast

“Is that a Sediment wine?” is one of the most awkward queries at my own dining table, as well as CJ’s, implying that I might be about to accompany our supper with some utterly undrinkable joke product. 

But perhaps the most difficult wine question I get asked is “Was it expensive?” For at that moment, the lid comes off the can, and worms are all over the dining table.

“Expensive” is, of course, a completely subjective notion. One man’s expensive is another man’s cheap, etc. However, bear with me me when I say that this man’s expensive is your expensive, too.

The other man, who’s cheap, is, of course, CJ, who once baulked at a wine which cost “a brace of cinema tickets”.  Don’t let this mislead you, however, into thinking that he knows any more about cinema tickets than he does about wine. Ask him how come we missed the start of Frost/Nixon because we were sitting in the wrong screen

My wife is not blind to the cost of good wine. In fact, thanks to Sediment, she is only too painfully aware of the relationship between quality and price. Offered a glass of sherry, Mrs K now asks cautiously, “Is it the nice one, or the cheap one?”

Hence her understandable caution over Sediment wines, and the subsequent notion that if a wine’s nice, it’s expensive. So, is it? Well – and this, to me, is the key thing – the answer is always that it’s not as expensive as it could have been

It was reduced. It was on 3 for 2. It’s three times that price in a restaurant. I got a case discount. It costs a lot more now than when I bought it. It costs a lot more at the posh wine merchants on the High Road. 

So trust me to be lured in by a bargain. Uncorked is an excellent wine merchant, based in the City, and really aimed at customers with deeper pockets than mine. They got a bit upset when I suggested this once before,  but let me give you an example of their customers’ suggested lifestyle from their list. A rather nice claret, Chateau Lanessan 2001 is just over £14 if you buy it from them by the case, but £17.95 by the bottle. And here  is how they describe it: “This 2001 is for drinking: don't squirrel it away, but keep a couple of cases in the utility room for kitchen suppers and weekend lunches.” 

Well, sorry chaps, but £18 for a kitchen supper wine is expensive in my book. That’s a dinner party wine. Mrs K would throw a justifiable wobbly if our midweek spag bol was accompanied by even a £14 wine. Quite apart from complaining about “a couple of cases” (don’t you love the insouciance?) in the utility room blocking the route to the tumble dryer.

However, Uncorked do have sales, and in early February I spotted this Lanciola Chianti 2007 on offer for £8.76. And it was terrific, an extraordinarily well-balanced wine; rich and resonant but without being heavy, soft yet bright and with a long aftertaste reflecting its buoyant nose. It’s light enough to drink with white meat, yet clever enough to enjoy on its own. Brilliant.

By the time I had realised just how nice and yet inexpensive it was, the sale was over. But, I thought, at £116.05 a case, that’s £9.67 a bottle, and still not expensive. A bargain, I’d say. Maybe not a couple of cases, but one case alone would merit the effort of getting it into my racks while avoiding the question of cost. (It’s an exercise like the Great Escape in reverse – how to get things into a cellar undetected…)

But no. I went back, and they now have 0 cases, 0 bottles, 0 available stock. I bought the last remaining bottle for my cellar, at the single bottle price of £10.96. 25% more than I first paid. Damn

So is my bottle expensive? Cheap? Frankly, I’ve lost track. All I do know is that the single unrepeatably delicious bottle in my cellar is now like bloody gold dust…


Thursday 8 March 2012

Amnesia: Cowrie Bay New Zealand Chardonnay

I'm sitting at the kitchen table, gloomily unscrewing a bottle of Cowrie Bay New Zealand Chardonnay, and my wife says, 'Didn't you drink that the other day?'

'Well, yes,' I say, defensively. She has her head angled in such a way as to let me know that I'm doing something wrong.

'I thought you didn't like it.'

'No, I didn't,' I reply, quite truthfully. It looked all right at the time, in a dully corporate sort of style (which was, naturally, why I bought it) but it tasted of bananas and chewing gum and gave me a headache.

'So why are you drinking it again? Is it something to do with Sediment?'

This hasn't occurred to me as a reason why I might be tackling a second bottle of something I didn't enjoy the first time round, so I say, 'Yes. That's why I'm drinking it again'. She ratchets up the disapproval by narrowing her eyes. This takes us to a new level of threat, after which she can start asking questions like Is that the second bottle today and Have you made a start on the bathroom? Luckily, the phone rings and she goes off to answer it, shooting me a parting glance heavy with incredulity. I now have to find something to say about it, or look like a man who doesn't know why he's sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a wine he doesn't like.

I stare at the Cowrie Bay. It occurs to me that I might be drinking so much these days that I can't remember any more what I'm drinking, that the whole week has become a Lost Weekend in which I experiment repeatedly with already over-familiar wines in a completely senile and circular fashion before forgetting whatever it was I might just have learnt and going out and re-acquiring the wine I have only recently consumed and reached an unfavourable judgement upon. It's possible. I have recently started reading novels while burdened by a chimerical sense of familiarity, only to discover (usually with my wife's assistance) that I have actually been re-reading them.  

On the other hand, living like a goldfish has its advantages, especially if I can pare my sensory and intellectual experiences down to about five items, never have to go in search of anything new and never get bored. Except that on this occasion, now my memory has been jogged, I can recall that Cowrie Bay tastes of bananas and gum. So what amnesia overwhelmed me at the point of purchase? Dr. Freud tells us that there are no mistakes, only the promptings of the unconscious mind, so what was my unconscious trying to tell me when I involuntarily grabbed a bottle of wine I didn't like, at a price I did?

'It can't have been very good, otherwise you'd have remembered,' says my wife, suddenly close by again.

Years ago, in the late twentieth century, I did try and keep a wine diary, presumably in anticipation of this dreadful day, but I never wrote anything more revealing in it than Red: rough; or Red: extremely rough and soon gave it up. A friend of mine - I don't think it was PK, although I may be wrong about that, too - told me once about finding someone else's wine diary, which turned out to be as inconsequential and uninformative as mine was, and this did cheer me a bit. Unless he'd found my wine diary and forgotten it was mine when he told me about finding it, which is also possible.

Anyway, the Cowrie Bay Chardonnay is sitting there in front of me, so I pour a slug, bracing myself for the worst, only to find - to my amazement - it tastes quite different from the way I think I remember it. Yes, there are some horrible grace notes of custard and melon and artificial sweetener, but there is also a bit of bite underneath, a bit of steeliness, which makes the whole experience really quite appealing.

'You know, this isn't bad', I say. My wife shoots me another glance, then the phone starts ringing again.