Wednesday 27 June 2012

Wine Tastings: Chianti & Valpolicella, Nostalgia & Ignorance

One of the good things - possibly the only good thing - about doing Sediment, is that occasionally PK and I get invited to a wine tasting, almost invariably as a result of PK's persistence and low animal cunning when it comes to massaging the sensibilities of the promotional agencies involved. As a result, I have been to more wine tastings in the last two years than in the rest of my life; not surprising since I had only been to a single tasting before 2010. 

And I am making progress at these events. After a rocky start, I have improved in both style and deportment. I now know that there is no dress code to speak of, that people will turn up in anything from chalkstriped suits to bemired jeans; as a consequence of which, it is almost impossible not to blend in unless you dress up as, say, Yosemite Sam. This is fine with me, since I normally tend to dress like a mental patient on day release; or like a wine buff.

I have also learned how to ask for wine from the exhibitors/winemakers/stallholders without first hiding behind PK and shouting my order over his shoulder, or sweating visibly with nerves, or barking out Champagne when I mean Chardonnay. And my spitting, while not producing that diamond-hard jet of gore that the very best spitters manage, usually goes in the spittoon and not down my shirt. I can even mouth a few words of wine-appreciator's horseshit, and have pronounced good colour or interesting tannins to complete strangers (under the mistaken impression that they were PK) without being openly jeered at. 

Which ought to represent some sort of addition to my life, a hobby almost, especially since some of the drink you get at these events is delicious, so delicious even I can tell how good it is. 

The problem is that I am incapable of learning. I have no memory for flavours. PK can drink something and make a useful comparison with another drink he has drunk in the past, or at least seem to do so, whereas I live in an irksome present, a present in which wine taste sensations sometimes bear a chimerical resemblance to something I've previously encountered, but… what? Was it a Cabernet Sauvignon? A Corbières? Was it red or white?

I thought I might make a difference to this inane state by going to two Italian-themed wine tastings in rapid succession, thereby consolidating my new-found enthusiasm for Italian wines, developing at the same time some kind of vestigial taste structure for future use. The first one, thrown by Liberty Wines,  was for fancy Tuscan wines, heavy on the Chianti, obviously. I tried a pretty classy 1990 Chianti Classico Riserva, which was too understated for PK, who likes his wines gnotty/pugnacious/ full of granular challenges, but which I found myself comparing, with only a moderate degree of fatuity, to a fine tapestry that had faded with age but nonetheless bore all the artistry and refinement one would expect, only browner. Another five years and it probably wouldn't taste of anything at all, but two weeks ago it was still good.

We then found ourselves a week later at a much wider-ranging Italian wine tasting run by Hunt & Coady. I thought, this is it, this is where I begin the long journey into  wine snobbery, reinvent myself as an Italophile wine bore, this is where the knowledge finally takes root

Two snags. The first was that there was an incredible variety of different wines from an unbelievable number of regions, made from an inordinate number of grape varieties: almost none of which I had ever heard of. The second was that nearly all of the wines I tried, I didn't like. PK was quite in his element, but I kept reaching for phrases like burning carpet, biro ink, unslaked lime, aware that of all things this was not what I had come to the tasting to do. It was only the Chiantis and Valpolicellas, those old chestnuts, that I actually enjoyed. 

So the Italophilia has now been mothballed, pending a complete personality re-think. I weary of my own ignorance, but it shows no signs of running out. 

Worryingly, it may all come down to nostalgia, an insufficiency in fact of the irksome present. When I was a student, doing the Grand Tour of Italy, scouring the place for Maximum Culture and girls, there would be times when I had saved up enough lire for a cheap restaurant meal, and in I would go, and I would have a carafe of strawberry-bright Chianti, or something described as that with the meal, and I would swig this stuff and tell myself, Yes, I am a citizen of the world, I am a person of taste, and it would be a pretty heady experience. 

And it may be that Chianti and Valpolicella, whatever their provenance, are less wines, more triggers of a shifty, half-suppressed, yearning for the past. Nothing wrong with that, in and of itself (think Proust, Keats, Dean Martin), except that it's a faulty premise on which to base a relationship. I mean, it's in the nature of wine to embody notions of time, the immanence of the past, retrospection; but equally, there comes a point beyond which you disappear up your own sense of perspective. 

A possible solution? A wine about which I know nothing, and care even less, an empty space, a Harrison Ford of wines: Argentinian Malbec! 


Wednesday 20 June 2012

Manzanilla sherry: Two places, two prices…two wines?

Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Well, I now know of two wildly differing prices of manzanilla sherry – what does that mean for its value?

My own recent holiday was to the Andalusian area of Spain, and as CJ so artfully expressed it, holiday drinking rules applied. I was looking forward to exploring the wines of the region. (Well, when I say “exploring”, I suppose I do mean, er, “drinking”…)

I particularly wanted to “explore” their sherries. At one point, I had even planned to visit and tour one of the bodegas in Jerez – but I was put off by a number of online reports that such tours are basically a tourist rip-off, a quick tour of Disney-fied facilities followed by a brief snifter (with overpriced tapas) and, as Banksy would have it, Exit via the gift shop.

(Although why I would trust such online sites I don’t know, since their reviews of Seville’s fabulous bars often consisted of ignorant criticisms such as “the fish came without vegetables”, or, in one memorable instance, “they didn’t speak English”. Someone even complained that the barmen didn’t smile enough. Never drank at the Coach & Horses, then…?) 

In fact, I found it perfectly satisfactory to “explore” sherries from the right side of a bar. And what really struck me was the huge, the colossal, the perception-altering difference in price between Spain and England.

I first encountered manzanilla sherry as a chilled aperitif at Fino, one of the best Spanish restaurants in London. There, La Gitana manzanilla is £4.50 for a 100ml glass, which equates to more than £33 a bottle. Manzanilla has gorgeous crisp, clean nutty flavours and a bouquet of sea air, and even when I realised I could buy a bottle from merchants for less than a tenner, I still treated it with respect, poured modest measures, and regarded it as a luxury.

But in Seville, I found that it was regarded as just another wine. And after realising that I was being charged just €1.50 or so for a large glass of manzanilla in the bars, I thought I should check the prices in a Seville supermarket. 

Well. Las Medellas, which I bought from The Wine Society  for £6.95, was €4.33 a bottle in Seville – that was £3.50. La Gitana, which Majestic list at £8.99, was €4.85 a bottle – £3.92. And La Guita, which Vinoteca in London sell at £12.50 a bottle, was just €5.10 – £4.12 a bottle.

So what this comes down to is that in London, I am paying between twice and three times what the identical bottle of manzanilla costs in Seville.

Of course, you’ll say, there’s the duty that HMRC places on a bottle of wine; a higher rate of VAT; and the cost of shipping the stuff over from Spain; along with a chain of intermediaries who all want to make a profit. But still…three times the price?

And the thing is, I’m rather thrown. There have been proper research studies which confirm that a knowledge of price, along with things like label design or name, alter our perceptions of a wine. Of course they do. Just like a painting; we can’t help but be influenced in our judgment by where we encounter it, who has made it and what it costs.

So…what is manzanilla? A relatively expensive aperitif – or a wine for under four quid a bottle?

It’s my Champagne vs CJ’s Cava all over again – only in this case, it’s exactly the same wine.

How is a travelled, man of the world supposed to react authentically to a glass of manzanilla? Am I serving an expensive wine,  quite a specialist drink, bit of a treat, served in a smallish glass and a bit pricey, actually… 

Or, to people in the know, to proper men of Europe,  is it something cheap, that’s supposed to be knocked back, to accompany an entire meal, something to serve in a regular wine glass, no need to stint, and downed like any other cheap wine, “Oh, don’t you know the authentic thing is just to glug the stuff…”

In other words, is the whole character of the wine, and the way you regard and treat it, inevitably altered by its price?

Ironically, of course, the manzanilla at the cheap price in Seville actually tasted better – because a far more significant influence than the price was the fact that I was drinking it standing in the crowd at El Rinconcillo, the oldest tapas bar in the world, with hams hanging from the ceiling, your tab chalked up on the counter, fabulous little tapas dishes, and a noisy, bustly atmosphere. 

(My own experience was not remotely dented by the fact that the barman neither spoke English, nor smiled like a well-trained “Counter Person” from the Stepford branch of KFC.)

Having enjoyed what I can only describe as the low-price, high-value manzanilla experience of Seville, I wanted to bring some of these bargains home. But flights being what they are nowadays, I had to put the three bottles I bought into my check-in luggage. Necks protected with balled-up dirty socks, bottles encased in…dirty socks (we did a lot of walking, alright?). Each bundle rolled into grubby shirts, then plastic bags, and the bases placed into shoes. With enormous trepidation I undid my suitcase upon arrival, anticipating shards of glass and clothing awash in sherry, thankfully to find three successfully intact bottles – bearing a faint odour of socks…

So now, I am well stocked with manzanilla. But I don’t know what I’m serving. People will assume my La Guita is expensive, sipping manzanilla – but my La Guita is actually cheap, glugging manzanilla. Isn’t it?

The only giveaway is the fading odour of dirty socks…


Wednesday 13 June 2012

What I Drank On My Holidays: Badoit

So we went away to Lombardy and the South of France, and, yes, it was as nice as it sounds, and yes, it is hell to be back. And one reason why it was indeed so very nice, was because holiday drinking rules applied, and we all know what that means, the gallimaufry of unfamiliar taste sensations plus overwhelming sentimental light-headedness as the sun sets over the lake, conspiring to fuddle the senses benignly and persistently, causing one to leap to certain new and suddenly unshakeable conclusions, among them

- The only wines worth drinking are Italian. This is on the basis of a bottle of something called, seriously, Crapulone, a red from Lombardy; a rosé called Roselario, also from Lombardy; and a supermarket Chianti from the Como branch of Carrefour which cost only €4 and was nonetheless approximately twice as good as a 4 bottle of British Chianti would have been. The first two were a bit more upscale - that holiday effect - and, as PK would put it, elegant, supple and full of finesse in a way I just don't associate with other wines, wherever they're from. I mean, they weren't especially long on narrative but then narrative is over-rated anyway, just another excuse for excessive buttonholing and finger-wagging and gusts of alcohol and tannins, so, yes, Italy brings delight, brings leggerezza although, meanwhile

- In the Carpentras region of Southern France, staying subsequently with our grand friends who have a house over there, we knocked off (one evening) a couple of bottles of red made by some of their neighbours, and this stuff was spicy, black as ink, extremely tasty, 14.5%, and gave us immense hangovers the next morning. 'I haven't felt like this since I was sixteen,' we all said, shielding our eyes with our hands. A safer wine turned out to be a fantastic Côtes du Rhône Villages, like the Chianti a mere €4, this time from the local SuperU, but tasting, to my way of thinking, well up there with 15+ bottles such as chumps like us are forced to buy in this country

- But either way, great joy of supermarket buying: in Italy, scores (just enough, not too many) of very moderately-priced Italian wines and nothing but Italian wines; in France, scores (just enough) of very moderately-priced French wines and nothing but French wines, all lined up in uniform ranks like the Armée de Terre, the sheer pleasure of having pointless excessive choice taken out of your hands, leaving you free to gawp in a relaxed manner while swarthy men push their trolleys past and women with violent rust-coloured hair con the household cleaners

- And yet, even with all that going on, what was the single most memorable drink of the trip? I don't want to get too Bruce Chatwin about it, but strictly speaking, it was a glass of cold fizzy Badoit with a slice of lemon in it, which I drank after we'd been walking around the Dentelles de Montmirail (blazing sunshine, honey aroma of flowering broom, shedload of vineyards dazzling in their June foliage, not that I want to get all Chatwin, obviously) before finding a tiny café in the shade. The Badoit was about the sweetest thing I can remember drinking, generating small but audible gasps of satisfaction as it went down. There you go. Which means what? That cold and fizzy beats room temperature and still? That water trumps wine? Actually, it means the bloke running the tiny café really knew how to stiff any passing tourists: my small Badoit bottle ended up costing me €2.50. There, indeed, you go


Thursday 7 June 2012

Wine for good friends? - Mondelli Montepulciano d'Abruzzo

These wines – they do like to try and dictate their terms and conditions, don’t they? We’ve been told to drink wines with particular foods; and instructed to drink wines with particular events, like barbeques or celebrations. Now, an encounter with a wine to drink with particular people.

Returning from holiday, a supermarket trip was required, in order to replace the fridge’s impressive accrual of fur balls and petri dish cultures. I had previously remained as oblivious as Mr Sainsbury no doubt intended to his offering of Mondelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo at its absurd original price of £7.99 – but here it was, triumphantly offered at a £3.99 reduction to just £4.

Now, unlike CJ – a living example of the triumph of hope over experience –  I do not have high expectations for a £4 wine. £4 a glass possibly – £4 a bottle, no.

But what intrigued me into purchase was the message on the back label: “Perfect served with good friends…”.

Let’s not waste time attempting to distinguish between “friends” and “good friends”. I do, however, recall a Cambridge chap of whom it was said that he treated everyone as if they were his oldest friend – which was all very well, unless you were his oldest friend.

What intrigues me is whether the notion of a wine to serve with “good friends” is intended to raise expectations – or to lower them.

What exactly am I supposed to be doing with these “good friends”? Well, further clues are offered on the back label, presumably for those of us who don’t know how to entertain our friends. I’m to be serving them “pizza, hearty pasta dishes and hard cheeses”. Not the kind of evening for which I’ll be polishing the silver, then. Sorry, friends.

And clearly therefore not an evening designed to flatter or impress one’s guests. Not the occasion for a prospective employer, say, or father-in-law. So by which logic would I inflict this wine upon my “good friends”? 

Is it that my “good friends” will accept a pizza and some £4 vino, because I don’t have to impress them; because they accept me, as the saying has it, warts and all? (We’ll see about that, when I remove my socks at the dinner table to discuss my verrucas…)

Is it that, while pets cower and neighbours complain about the volume, the banter and bonhomie between us should be so entertaining that we’re all rendered oblivious to the quality of the wine?

Or, since the label describes it as “easy drinking”, and the volume that can be consumed at only £4 a bottle so enormous, that never mind distinguishing good wine from bad, my “good friends” will be incapable of distinguishing night from day?

In point of fact, this is far from easy drinking; it was actually a considerable challenge, from its ominously bruise-like colour onwards. It may at some point have had a passing relationship with a grape, but its insipid flavour is swept away on an fierce, industrial blast of alcohol, leaving just an unpleasantly bitter aftertaste. Mrs K observed that this was the first wine she had ever seen me pour back into the bottle; a comment, I feel, potentially as critical of myself as the wine.

So let’s get this Mondelli proposition straight. I’m inviting our “good friends” around. So I get in a pizza, some hard cheese, and some really acrid, cheap wine, that leaves my guests feeling they’ve inhaled CS gas. And tonight we’ll merry be.

Well, if only so that Mrs K and I can maintain something of our social circle, may I declare that I am completely unconvinced by this notion of provision to one’s “good friends”. Or even to those ranked above the dizzy social heights of our “casual acquaintances”. Frankly, I wouldn’t serve this wine to even random visitors like meter readers. 

It’s been stored (see picture) where it belongs. Rest easy, good friends.