Wednesday 25 April 2012

A bottle of wine for 1p

Just take a look at the supermarket wine offer in the picture.

That’s right; two bottles for £12. 

One bottle costs £11.99. 

A second bottle costs just 1p.

Now obviously the whole thing is predicated on selling wine at £6 a bottle. This is just a different way of promoting two bottles for half the ostensible price. Only an idiot would not buy a second bottle. Alright.

But nevertheless, it enables me to say that I have bought a bottle of wine for 1p. 

This is the sort of thing which brings simple joy to some men’s hearts. Well, CJ’s heart. Indeed, even my own good wife, upon hearing that I had bought a bottle of wine for 1p, asked if I could get some more, without even tasting it. That is, worryingly, a very CJ approach. But not mine.

No. I, typically, have tied myself in knots, wondering whether this second, 1p bottle of wine was really worth £6, or £11.99, or 1p, or some other mythical sum. 

Shamefully, my first thought was whether I could return a 1p bottle for a refund of £11.99. I wasted considerable time trying to work out a way to finesse this. What if you buy two bottles, and take the second one back? Ah, but your receipt would show you’d bought two. So, what if you buy three bottles, with the third on a separate receipt? You take back one of the first two, with the second receipt… No, this was like one of those matchstick puzzles, where you remove three matchsticks to make five, and the answer’s always in Roman numerals. 

(“Ah, mercator Sainsbury. I bought III bottles of wine, of which II cost XI pounds and XCIX pence…”)

Now, I have tried and failed to get my head around some of the big numbers quoted in some of today’s fantasy economics. They bear little relation to the economics which I once studied, and which seemed largely predicated on the costs of guns and butter. Take the global debt, for example, which, at the time of writing, is a 14-digit number  more akin to calculations in astral physics. Or a short-term payday loan, which quotes an annual interest rate of 1737% But now here I am, being troubled by a sum at the opposite end of the financial spectrum.

You might be surprised by what you can actually buy for a penny. There are all sorts of things on eBay starting at a penny. On Amazon you can buy secondhand books such as the Harry Potter paperbacks for just 1p. Okay, the postage will cost you another £2.80, which probably means it would be cheaper to find a copy in a charity shop, but it’s still a move on from the days in which you were limited in your childhood spending choices to penny chews. (Which, I am appalled to find, are now over 4p each.) 

The problem is that a penny is now such a derisory sum. Would you even stoop to pick up a penny? Be honest now; on a wet pavement, with its potential history of canine evacution, and what the London Underground coyly refer to as “human spillage”?

There is, of course, a traditional notion that, if you look after the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves. Well, not in my experience they don’t; you just end up with several pennies.

(You have to be a bit realistic with these old aphorisms. Again, in my experience, see a pin and pick it up, and all the day you’ll have…a pin.)

(Oh, and a pricked finger. And possibly tetanus.)

And if a penny is such a worthless thing, that must surely influence our view of a wine with that derisory price tag.

There has been serious research into the way in which the price of wine alters our expectations and perceptions of taste. People use what is described as a “price-quality heuristic” to balance expectations of what they will get for their money. (Whether the “price-quality heuristic” applies to Harry Potter books for 1p is not today’s subject.) So surely, it behoves me to consider any wine according to its price, or prices?

So according La Patrie Cahors 2010 the respect an £11.99 wine deserves: it had that typically inky colour redolent of Cahors. It had a strong, sharply blackcurranty bouquet, and was smooth in the mouth with just a bit of tannin grip around its edges. But it’s not a stayer – it lacks the strong character of a good paysan wine, and becomes flat and a little lifeless in the glass. Frankly, there are much better examples of Cahors available for around £9. 

But the 1p bottle had the ominously dark colour of soy sauce blended with pomegranate juice. It had a medicinal bouquet, like blackcurrant cough lozenges, and slid down like paraffin, leaving just a bitter aftertaste clacking at the sides of my mouth. Flabby, dull and uninteresting.

At neither price can this Cahors really be recommended. But if you want to forget the fiscal worries of fantasy economics, any 1p wine has to be a better and more rapid form of mind-numbing escapism than a similarly-priced Harry Potter paperback. 


Wednesday 18 April 2012

Wine Society Corbières: Greatest Hits

So PK and I are at this agreeable wine-tasting event, France Under One Roof, but you know how it is, you cope with the whites, but after about seven reds, your mouth furs up and no matter how much you rinse with tapwater and nibble at dry biscuits, you can't taste anything any more except fag-ash and blotting paper. Your mouth becomes a toilet that won't flush properly. (The Ramones: I Don't Wanna Go Down To The Basement) But: I find myself staring at a Corbières Boutenac 2007 and it beckons me forward and I swig it and it is so relaxed, so charming, levitating above the dirty doormat of my palate so convincingly (Plastique Bertrand: Ça Plane Pour Moi) that I blag a whole bottle from the importers (the extremely helpful Val d'Orbieu Group) and take it home, noting principally that it comes in about the heaviest bottle I have ever carried, heavier it seems than a Champagne bottle, as if it might be needed for some kind of sabotage, such as derailing a train or blocking the barrel of a howitzer. And the stuff tastes just as great at home (The Damned: Neat Neat Neat) as it did at the tasting.

I conceive a plan (Iggy Pop: Lust For Life) to buy some more, not necessarily of this sleek 2007 stuff, on account of it costing in the region of £15 a bottle, but from The Wine Society, membership of which the wife gave me as a birthday present ten years ago, and which I have only used once since then (The Sex Pistols: Pretty Vacant). At £7.25 a bottle, the Wine Society's own Corbières is two quid over the high-water mark I normally try to observe and a cringeing shabby proletarian voice tells me not to get above myself, because it is invariably a let-down when I do, but I am so kinky for the Corbières after the 2007 experience that I repress all weakness and order half a dozen bottles, plus some jaunty odds and ends to make up the case.

Of course, it is impossible for any delivery of wine to make it to our house satisfactorily (The Clash: London Calling), and what do you know, but The Wine Society sends the order three bottles of Corbières short. I should have seen it coming, and plainly I can never use them again (Eddie and the Hot Rods: 96 Tears), or at least not for another decade. But there is still enough wine for me to get stuck into, which I do with the aid of my classy but practical 150ml Paris Goblet, plus a scrap of paper for the tasting notes.

And the Corbières is good: nice raspberry nose, narrow on the palate, good balance of tannins and acidity, nice finish with a bit of vanilla coming through (I'm not making this up, by the way) although a hint of chesty afterburn. Something to do with being a 2009 and 14.5%? 'Needs to settle' I write, sagely (Ian Dury & The Blockheads: Clevor Trevor). It covers all the angles: not as parched and niggardly as the kind of Bordeaux I can normally afford; not as egomaniacal as a red Burgundy; not as belligerent as a Côtes du Rhône. It is self-contained and civilised, and I kid myself that there's just enough resemblance to the now almost completely-forgotten 2007 to have made the experiment worthwhile. 'This' I say to myself, 'is a Wine for All Seasons'. Then I am struck with a terrible realisation (The Buzzcocks: Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldnt've)): the Corbières, not quite one thing or the other, apparently containing good bits from everywhere else, is analagous to my tendency to buy music compilations, Greatest Hits and Best Ofs, cultural artifacts which allow me to dip my toe into something without actually having to commit. Which reveals a fatal lack of decisiveness, in other words. And the ultra-obliging Corbières (with all the spadework I've put into it) is actually just another way of saying I don't really know my own mind. Does that mean I have to start all over again? (The Ramones: Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue)


Thursday 12 April 2012

Why I just can't serve "the best value Pinot in the world" – M&S Palataia Pinot Noir

Like many English boys, I grew up hating Marks & Spencer. Now I’m middle-aged, do I have to succumb to their wine? To say nothing of their elastic-waisted trousers…

Marks & Spencer are hailed universally for the quality of their goods; so it’s perfectly credible when a wine critic of the calibre of Tim Atkin suggests that M&S may be currently selling the best value Pinot Noir in the world. It’s credible, it’s financially appealing (£8.99!), and its only problem is years of ingrained prejudice against M&S. Which, as a middle-aged man and potential core customer, it’s perhaps time I overcame.

Kids, you see, often hate M&S. Because when they want some overpriced hip brand of clothing, their parents insist instead on buying them good quality, cheaper versions from M&S – which almost look the same. This makes the children a playground laughing stock. See a teenager wearing M&S jeans, see a victim of bullying in waiting.

But then, as you grow older, and start working and earning, Marks & Spencer pulls you in from a different direction. For the aspirational young professional is lured into M&S not by their clothes, but by their food.

It may be worth taking a moment to try and explain Marks & Spencer food to readers from our former colonies and elsewhere. Unlike their largely practical clothing, their food is unashamedly indulgent. M&S are known mainly for their ready-made dishes, which as their TV ads once breathily intoned, is not just food – it is M&S food. This means it is very good, but also very expensive. To illustrate the cash-rich, time-poor nature of customers of their pre-prepared food, one need only look at the frightening price of, say, their pre-roasted potatoes (£4.98 for approximately £0.68p worth of potato

And their notion of “pre-prepare” can be as broad as, say, peel, chop and put in bag. Hence, and I kid you not, their bags of pre-cut carrot batons…

The thing is, M&S food is really food for yourselves. Most people would feel “cheated” if they went out to dinner and someone served them pre-prepared M&S food. It looks as if you have made no effort. Well, you have made no effort. Unless you count queuing.

What, then, about a recognisably M&S wine? The store consistently win awards for their wines – but again, the “no effort” issue rears its head. Rightly or wrongly, it looks like an afterthought. Turn up at a dinner party bearing a bottle of Marks & Spencer wine, and it looks like you popped in to get some elasticated – sorry, Active Waist  – trousers, and grabbed a bottle of wine just because you were there. No effort. Social faux pas.

So why, I ask myself, why do they always declare on the label that it is an M&S wine? Some kind of misguided brand status? “We take the awards, you take the praise” they announced in one of their wine ads. Praise for what? Your ability to find an M&S? Your disposable income? Your understanding of the command, “Cashier number four, please”?

CJ once declared his taste for an M&S House Red;  but in his house, spying an M&S wine label is something of a relief, given the menagerie which usually parade across the front of his bottles and announce another ugly compromise between flavour and finance. 

At least in one’s own home, one can decant a wine and hide its label. If this really is “the best value Pinot Noir in the world”, then I will happily disguise its provenance. If it looks like Burgundy…

Few people go to M&S specifically to buy a bottle of wine. I can honestly say that I was the only person in my (lengthy) queue holding just a bottle of wine. Most people are clearly buying their supper, an entire meal for one or possibly two; I looked embarrassingly as if my whole evening was going to be spent with only a bottle of wine.

(I must just relate the story of the chap arriving at a checkout with a basket containing a small loaf of bread, a half bottle of wine and a pre-prepared meal for one. “Single, are you?” asked the checkout girl.

“Yeah,” said the chap, “Can you tell from the food?”

“No,” she replied. “You’re just bloody ugly.”)

Anyway, it has to be said that this is a delicious, fragrant Pinot Noir. It has a light, strawberry bouquet with a hint of spice, all elements which carry through to its delicate, easy, almost ethereal flavour. It is as good as many Burgundies. It received fulsome praise from Mrs K, who then drank too much of it. No, it is not the Labouré Roi Échezeaux Grand Cru 2007, which I pretentiously told CJ tasted like choral evensong; but it is, as they say, singing from the same hymnsheet. And, even though a single bottle was actually £9.45, that is one-tenth of the Burgundy's price. Very good value indeed. 

But. It does not like being decanted for long. That fragrant delicacy disappears like smoke after an aerated hour. You really should serve this to a gathering, and from the bottle. Which means revealing where you got it. 

And I can’t do it yet. I just can’t. Any more than I would pour it wearing shoes which almost look like Sperry Topsiders. Giving up the effort, like succumbing to Active Waist trousers, means abandoning the reward.

So – recommended for those who would serve, in M&S terms, not just pork, but a prime cut of Scottish out-door bred pork matured for tenderness, de-boned and tied to make carving easier. For family, therefore, not guests. 

For guests, you’d surely want to go the whole hog.


Thursday 5 April 2012

Wine + Whisky – Queen Victoria's Tipple

I am so bored that in desperation I re-open my copy of Kingsley Amis's Everyday Drinking ('The New York Times bestseller, it says on the front) and look for something to stimulate my jaded sensibilities. Kingsley Amis (unlike me and PK) was an acknowledged drink expert (whisky in particular) and pretty much a functioning alcoholic in everyday life - quite apart from being a well-known novelist, biographer and critic. The pieces which make up Everyday Drinking were originally written between 1971 and 1984, and if nothing else, give you a snapshot of upper-middle-class boozing habits forty years ago.

That said, Amis's idea of a well-stocked drinks cabinet, even allowing for the intercessions of time, sounds a bit of an acid trip. Apart from the mainstays of gin, whisky, vodka etc., he recommends keeping: An orange liqueur; A cherry liqueur; Benedictine; Crème de Menthe; Crème de Cacao; Orange bitters; A bottle of sugar syrup; a selection of French and Italian Vermouths. Christopher Hitchens reckoned Amis 'A very slight cocktail bore', which might account for this terrible catalogue, but there you go: the Seventies were both stickier and more brightly-coloured than the newsreels suggest.

On the other hand, he's bang on in his attitude to wine writers. He quotes an anonymous contemporary wine critic who was unwise enough to write: 'Rather a jumbly, untidy sort of wine, with fruitiness shooting off one way, firmness another and body pushing about underneath. It will be as comfortable and comforting as the 1961 Nuits-St-Georges once it has pulled its ends in and settled down.' According to Amis, this kind of stuff 'Receives a deeper and more educated contempt from real wine-drinkers than from the average man in the pub', but I'm not sure that time hasn't overtaken him and that, in this age of plenty, we're not all meant to be equally stupendously opinionated by-the-yard wine blowhards.

But on the other other hand, he has got this fantastic section on fatal-sounding drinks. I did mention this before, but now I am jaded enough to want to do something more than just mention it. Some of the drinks he describes are sensible enough (Dry Martini; Manhattan), but others are plainly stupid. The Kingers, (named for Kingsley Amis), contains montilla ('a lightly fortified wine from Spain'), orange juice and Angostura bitters. Queen Victoria's Tipple is simply ½ a tumbler of red wine + Scotch. The Tigne Rose is equal tots of gin, whisky, rum, vodka and brandy, and that's it. Evelyn Waugh's Noonday Reviver is a (hefty) shot of gin, ½ a pint of bottled Guinness, topped up with ginger beer. 

It's the stupid ones that sound so appealing. And the one that appeals most is Queen Victoria's Tipple, a) because it's incredibly simple, b) because I have the ingredients to hand. Slight snag: it's only half past ten in the morning. How much Scotch to put in? Amis recommends 'Stopping a good deal short of the top of the tumbler'. He also adds, 'Worth trying once.'

I get a really small Duralex tumbler, throw in some Brancott Estate Marlborough Pinot Noir that someone brought with them to the house and which has been sitting around, half-drunk, for a couple of days, and then rather less than half as much again of Tesco's finest Special Reserve Scotch whisky. I stare at it, then forget that it's there and about three minutes later absently take a swig. Deadly mistake. It has a taste somewhere between thin gravy, treacle and a three-day-old bonfire, with a real chesty punch, like being hit in the sternum with a bag of sand. It actually makes my eyes water, and two sips later I am numb enough to have surgery. It is kind of fantastic, but it is not a drink. Queen Victoria was violently opposed to abstinence from alcohol, regarding it as a 'Pernicious heresy'. Gladstone was appalled by this particular mixture, which was apparently her preferred dinner-table beverage. For once, he was right. The Old Queen, like Kingsley Amis, must have been shitfaced, most of the time.