Thursday 30 August 2012

Some wines don't improve with age – Chateau Liversan 2008

This is awkward. The kind of awkwardness which is the other side of wine’s social nature. For just as wine can delight, and lubricate one’s social life, so it can also disappoint, and make my life into a series of uncomfortable options akin to the Yalta conference.

Mrs K has been away. Working, I hasten to add to that ambiguous term. (When a workman told us he’d been ‘away’, my wife assumed it meant Majorca but I assumed Wormwood Scrubs.) Mrs K has been away working, and from the many possibilities of consolation during her absence, I decided on the one accompanied by the least physical, financial and marital risk; a bottle of 
claret from The Cellar – Liversan 2008, an Haut-Medoc of which I bought a case 
a year ago.

And…it’s had it. Past it. Gone. I thought its tannins were going to support it for a year or two yet; instead, it’s suddenly collapsed. Like the Greek economy.

As you may have seen last week,  I took a second bottle round to CJ’s for discussion. There we agreed – well, he agreed with me – that it had run out of steam. It lacked heft

I have to say here and now that we are not talking gag-reflex bad. To quote my esteemed fellow author, ‘the stuff [PK] has reservations about is between ten and fifteen times nicer than the stuff I have reservations about’. And we did polish off the bottle. (Although CJ’s drinking often combines the words ‘bottle’ and ‘polish’; sometimes, I fear, with an ‘of’ inbetween…)

But this claret is not what it should be. It is not what I anticipated, when I bought an entire case and put it away for the future.  It is not what I expected, after I had 
twice gone down to the sacred cellar to retrieve a bottle, risking life, limb and 
laundry basket.

It was, I hope, an understandable error. When I wrote about this wine a year ago, I said it was ‘initially a little stern, but it softened in the decanter into a blackberry fruity, rich and earthy claret.’ On offer at a cracking price, I bought a case, assuming that that sternness was going to support the wine for a few years yet.

But it has not. I feel the taste of disappointment, like those of us who came back home with one of David Bowie’s late albums.

If I were a rich man, and all day long I bidi-bidi-bummed, then I suppose I would just chuck the lot out, or cook with it, or leave it for offspring to take to parties. But I am not, and I don’t, so I won’t. Instead, I begrudge the money I have spent on what is clearly now a deteriorating investment.

And it seems to me that I can take three possible courses of action with the rest of this wine – none of which is particularly appealing.

I can tell people. Whether I take it to their houses, or open it at mine, I can explain the situation. This clearly places me in the role of something of an idiot; but one man in his time plays many parts, and this is one in which I am not unrehearsed. 

But if I tell people, a chunk of an evening may be spent in apologies, in discussing why the wine is not as good as one had hoped. To put this into perspective; surely one would never expect the host to serve up food, and begin by saying ‘Now, this beef doesn’t taste quite right…’

Alternatively, I can not tell people. They will come to my house, expecting my usual high standards of wine – and their faces will fall like a child given handkerchiefs for Christmas. They will stifle their disappointment but mutter in the taxi home, “That wine was a bit shabby…food as good as ever, full marks to Mrs K, but that wine…”

Or I will take it to theirs, still not revealing the truth about the wine. I will gamble on the fact that, as a single unmatched bottle, it may well disappear into their kitchen, and not be opened that evening. They will look at it when the guests have gone, with a nod of acknowledgment, and tuck it away for another occasion, thinking “Generous chap, that PK…guzzled our food, downed our grog and argued like Oliver Reed – but generous…”

But then, one day, they will drink it. They might even open it with their own friends. “Oooh, we’ve got this bottle which PK brought round, he knows his wine.” And they will think, what a sod, he must have known, he’s offloaded some of his rubbish onto us. Alternatively (and which is worse?), they will think, he clearly doesn’t know his wine after all, he’s as ignorant about wine as he clearly was about quantitative easing. 

Finally, I could drink it all myself, not so much drowning my sorrow as refreshing it time after time. Uncorking my disappointment over and over, made more bitter still with the taste of misplaced anticipation, and the idea of what I thought it would become. Oooh, Mr Smartarse, thinks he knows how things improve with age…. I could make an evening of it; pour myself a glass, put on my late Oasis, and open the last novel by Martin Amis.

There is a phrase, ‘the lesser of two evils’. It strikes me I have three, none of which seems any lesser than the other two. Suggestions welcome.


Thursday 23 August 2012

The Week In Wine: Médoc, Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Blanc

So PK is round at our house again, eating every piece of food he can lay his hands on while his wife is away, and this gives us a chance to talk arrant nonsense about a bottle of Haut-Médoc (Château Liversan 2008) which he's brought round and about which he harbours reservations. Frankly, the stuff he has reservations about is between ten and fifteen times nicer than the stuff I have reservations about, including the bottle of Lidl Shiraz/CabernetSauvignon I have been keeping back specially in order to annoy him with, but still.

After a brief and embarassing drinking encounter with the Lidl red, in the course of which we pull faces like two men stumbling upon an open grave, it's down to the Liversan. This allows us to remark with telling sagacity that its nose and elegant structure are tragically compromised by a fatal lack of heft.

'It lacks heft,' I say.
'Yes, it lacks heft,' says PK. 'It's somehow short on weight.'
'It should be weighter, shouldn't it?'
'I would have thought it ought to have more heft. I mean, it's a 2008. It shouldn't be running out of steam this early.'
'In another five years?'
'There'll be nothing left.'
'In five years, it'll have faded to nothing.'
'Such a shame.'
'It needs more heft.'
'More power,' PK says, clutching at the air with his free hand.
'Do you always talk about wine like this?' asks my wife, not bothering to disguise her incredulity.
'Yes,' I say. 'Yes, I think we do.'

Having decided that the Liversan, like a sketch by Watteau, is charming but in danger of disappearing into nothingness, we have a go at an ordinary Médoc that I have accidentally acquired.

'It's more robust,' PK announces, looking around to see if there's any more food.
'But lacks complexity,' I announce back.
'Definitely not as complex.'
'Not such a well-made wine.'
'Short on finesse.'
'Entertaining enough, in its way.'
'But short on finesse.'
'Are you looking for the cheese?'
'I might be.'
'It's quite engaging in a robust sort of way.'
'I mean, it would do at a pinch.'
'Plenty of fruit in the nose.'
'Suprisingly fruity nose.'
'But not much finesse.'

My wife attempts to put a stop to this by simultaneously rolling her eyes and making coffee, while I am struck by a pang of regret for the Lidl Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon, which I actually had hopes for in the way one might for an ugly but brave child. This is not least because the German Pinot Blanc I bought from Lidl at the same time turned out to be a bit of a baragin, nice floral notes, hint of caramel in the finish, a well-made white, I thought, for only £4.99, and I was hoping to repeat the trick with my foul Australian red. That, I told myself, will be a blow for the revolution, a grenade straight through the palace windows. I look at the bottle of Australian red, willing its contents to taste nicer.

'You don't fancy a bit more of the Australian?'
'God, no. What's this? Is this Grappa?'
'We can't start on that.' I don't want to die, here, to-night. 'It's horrible, anyway.'
'I'm so disappointed by that Liversan. I've got another bottle at home, as well.'
'How many did you buy?'
'It was a special offer.'
'That Australian red could have been a contender.'
'I don't think it's worth hanging on to, now.'
'Three ninety-nine. It's been open for a while. It might be worth another try.'
'It could have been very good. It very nearly is very good.'
'It didn't have to be good. It only had to be good enough to keep down.'
'Which was why it was on offer.'
'Now it's had a chance to breathe, I think it could work.'
'It's a pity.'
'It's a pity.'

We sit there, our silence only disturbed by the low hum of my wife's disapproval, and ponder our missed opportunities, as old men will do when they've had their hopes got up and nothing to show for it.


Wednesday 15 August 2012

Upmarket merchants, downmarket wine – Anima Umbra

At the posh wine merchants down the road – the ones (like all posh wine merchants) with an ampersand – austerity is clearly taking its toll. Facing the door, and hence visible from the street, a rack has recently appeared, proclaiming a selection of wines for under £10.

This is clearly designed to attract the paupers, riff-raff and ne’er-do-wells who shuffle past their door en route to the Tesco Expressnormally pausing only to raise their eyes in longing like a labrador outside a butcher’s.

An immediate posh giveaway (apart from the ampersand) is the fact that they consider “under £10” to be unusual enough to merit announcement. To put this into perspective, the web site of this merchant offers 943 wines above £10. They do have wine at over £1000 a bottle. 

Their signs look as if they are written in chalk, but in fact are painted permanently. Perhaps this is a recent development, now that they’re trying to attract the sort of people who make it so difficult to leave up a chalked sign for shitake mushrooms. 

They are clearly uncomfortable in promoting their wares at this end of the market. “Good wine for under £10” one sign declares. “Good”? As an Englishman huffily responds to most forms of advice, I’ll be the judge of that. 

“Change from £10 oh yeah!”, which sounds like one of McCartney’s clumsy earlier lyrics.

And finally, “Only got £10 no problem”, which raises a couple of issues, only one of which is grammatical. If you had literally only got £10, I suspect you would have a lot of problems, and spending your sole remaining tenner in a wine merchants would be way down your list of fiscal priorities.

However, it has to be said that this particular merchant has a few issues describing the wine at the upper end of their price range, too. Take the opening of their description for a bottle of 2004 Burgundy, costing £335: “Still only just finishing its malo, so hard and gassy …”

“Hard and gassy”? That certainly does not encourage me to spend £335 on a bottle. It sounds like a couple of the guys at Stamford Bridge.

It’s bad enough when CJ says a wine tastes of old newspapers and seems to think that’s a good thing, but at least his wine’s only £3.99. 

But, hang on. “Just finishing its malo…” – what? What??

There are, presumably, people for whom the malolactic fermentation of a wine is a key purchasing influence, and for whom terms like “needs some time”, or “not ready yet” are insufficiently specific. But what makes this particularly obnoxious is the chatty abbreviation “malo”, like, yah, that’s the way we in the know always banter about our £335 wine. Yah.

Anyway, in I stroll. Of course, I try to give off the air of someone who was intending to saunter all the way down the store, to the First Growth clarets and the £355 Burgundies finishing their malo at the far end, only to be rudely interrupted by the under-£10 display in my way. 

Oh, what’s this? Wines for under £10? Crikey! Do such things exist? How charming.

I am not interrupted with “assistance” as I look at the modest selection, because obvously for £10 you’re not going to get the unctuous fawning you expect when you’re spending £300+ on a bottle, never mind the banter about vintages and the repartee about malolactic fermentation. 

Besides, they presumably don’t want to frighten away those who have been lured, nervous as sparrows, across their threshold, but are more familiar with the self-selection of the supermarket.

It’s a sunny day, and I plump for an intriguing Italian white, Anima Umbramade primarily from the Grechetto grape, which I’ve not encountered before. It has a couple of troublingly downmarket elements, such as gold foil on its label, which lends it a sort of bonkbuster paperback appearance; and I find when I get home that it has a green plastic cork, which is a vile and unnatural thing, resembling some kind of medical bung.

But actually, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable wine. Intensely floral on the nose, lovely creamy texture, and then an extraordinary balance of full, apple and peach, fruit notes, with a crisp, refreshing aftertaste. Just the kind of acrobatics which create an excellent white to drink on its own. Yes, it is good wine for under £10.

Now, I’m not going to make any sweeping judgments about buying from merchants versus buying from supermarkets. But there is one fundamental difference. Clumsy as their promotional tactics may be, wines in merchants are properly priced. These are not short-term offers, with the wine doubling back up in price next week. And you can be equally confident that it’s is not going to be reduced next week either, to £5, or two for a tenner, or buy one get one free. This is wine which is actually worth £9.95.

Plus, I think it’s finished its malo.


Thursday 9 August 2012

Harmonische Rotwein - Lidl Bordeaux

So the old itch returns and nothing will stop it but I must find some really dodgy grog and drink it and somehow take pleasure in it as a way of re-asserting my belief in the existence of a benign but essentially cheapskate Universe. 

Where to look? I have had a bad time with Aldi in the past; but good times with Carrefour, SuperU and, of course, Lidl. Carrefour and SuperU not being in England, I must therefore Lidl it, but it turns out my nearest Lidl is practically in the West Country. But no matter, because I am so slack-jawed with boredom that any excuse to drive into the the outer outer suburbs looking for something I don't need and very probably shouldn't want, is like a gift from Heaven.

Also it's a chance to re-acquaint myself with the sempiternal mysteries of Lidl itself. If you can't go abroad, go to Lidl: it's not England, and it's only barely a supermarket as we understand it. The dream-like sensation of seeing familiar things subtly and disturbingly modified never fails. I mean, whoever heard of Crusti Croc Salt Your Own Crisps at Waitrose? Or W5 dishwasher tablets? Or Melangerie coffee? Or Dulano salami? Or Master Crumble breakfast cereal? To say nothing of the possibility of acquiring a Circular Saw with Laser Guide (34.99) or a tube of Construction Adhesive (1.99) or a Toilet Seat with LED Lights (26.99). But Lidl contains all of these things in its is parallel universe, and all these things define it. And this is without even touching on the provisional, even guerilla character of the stores themselves, which look like car exhaust replacement centres that have gone bust and been converted overnight into food cash'n'carries, hurriedly filled with the contents of three Czech pantechnicons and lit by an emergency lighting system nicked from a nearby hospital.

But on the other hand: you can (as anyone familiar with Lidl will attest) get some really edible stuff there, for not much. Picking over the roughly-opened cardboard crates and cheap trestles, you can find a single malt Scotch Whisky that costs less than a couple of bottles of Waitrose Sauvignon Blanc, and a milk chocolate Fruit'n'Nut substitute that rarely leaves our favourites list. It is like finding gold at the bottom of a bin liner.

And the wines? A small but pertinent choice at my closest Lidl - a good thing, no attempt to bludgeon you to death, instead a score of red white and pink plus some sparkling stuff, in the middle of which I lunge at a German Pinot Blanc (in a transgressive, weirdly-shaped brown bottle, erotic in its perversity) for 4.99; an Australian Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon at 3.99; and something gnomically calling itself Bordeaux - red, AC, 3.99. These are magic numbers - notionally close enough in price to the sort of stuff I was buying in Italy a few months ago, allowing for currency slippages, excise differential, general wooziness and so on. Frankly, my €4 Carrefour Chianti was pretty uncouth at the time, so the 3.99 Bordeaux doesn't have to try very hard to get even on points - added to which it has instructions in German on the back, which makes it as fabulous as something out of Maeterlinck: Dieser harmonische Rotwein stammt aus einer der berühmtesten Wein-Regionen der Welt. I am hopeful. I am on a first date.

Perhaps too hopeful. Loads of tannins and acidity, chesty cough/hint of groin strain, notes of old newspaper, dust, socks, are the main impressions. A fifteen-minute pause allows it to fight amongst itself and after that, well, it's about as okay as the €4 Chianti. It's a wine that you avert your gaze from while drinking, but it's still recognisably wine. I blame my sense of disappointment on the tragic magic of Lidl, of course, the thing that got me out of the house in the first place, the dream of finding a better, cheaper, bar of chocolate; a toilet seat with LED lights; a bottle of wine costing 3.99 that tastes like a bottle of wine costing 5.49. Oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust, as Rilke put it, capturing that Lidl psychic dislocation in one.


Thursday 2 August 2012

Beer then wine, feeling fine – or not…

Once again, an adage has let me down. 

I should, by now, have learnt my lesson. Better late than never, I found, carries little weight with Ryanair. And people who encourage you to put your money where your mouth is are probably cosmetic dentists.

However, waking up recently with a blinding headache, I realised that I had personally disproved one of the adages I had learnt concerning wine, namely “Beer then wine, feeling fine; wine then beer, feeling queer”. Despite following this clearly delineated order of drinking, of starting with beer and then following it with wine, I was feeling distinctly queer. I probably should have called the doctor, were he not excluded from the house thanks to my daily consumption of apples.

But there may already be some of you raising an eyebrow, and saying that I have got it wrong. For, as I now painfully realise, there are two versions of my adage. And the alternative version says that it’s “Beer on wine, feeling fine; wine on beer, feeling queer.” In other words, the order of the drinks is the other way around.

Now, there may be, indeed are, adages which contradict each other. How is it, for example, that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you’re never too old to learn? But I have never come across an adage of which there are two contradictory versions.

Some people will say the solution is clear; simply don’t mix your drinks, whatever the order. But as Kingsley Amis said, “The belief that mixing drinks upsets you is about as widespread and as mistaken as the one about bullies always being cowards.” And there are certain occasions when you inevitably end up drinking both beer and wine. Indeed, the occasions often dictate the order.

Beer on wine seems to go hand in hand with football matches. (That’s soccer, to our friends in the former colonies.) You meet up first for a perfectly civilised lunch, a pleasant meal accompanied by a pleasant quantity of wine. But broadcasting schedules now dictate that, instead of a 3pm kick-off, the game often won’t start until 5pm. And before you know it, the afternoon has descended into heroic amounts of beer-drinking, until you’re stumbling into your seats under the baleful gaze of pious fans like Big Richard, muttering under his breath about alcoholics.

(This has happened several times, although the exact number of occasions, or indeed players that were on the pitch, may be subject to double-counting.)

Wine on beer, however, generally occurs when you meet for a meal out with a mate. You meet in the pub, of course, and that means you start with a beer. This is determined by the fact that the majority of English pubs serve good beer, but their wine is either poor, over-priced or, in many cases, both.

I realise that’s a huge generalisation. Yes, there are gastropubs which serve excellent wine, but they assume you are eating a meal. The last time I drank wine in a pub which didn’t serve food, I was forced to drink Jacob’s Creek at £13 a bottle.

It’s also a fact that, while you can drink a good wine at home, you can’t get a proper real ale from the cask except in a pub. So when you’re there, you should take the opportunity. Plus, you’re unlikely to appreciate the subtleties of a fine wine in a pub once the singing and celery-throwing starts. 

Where did these ideas of a particular order for beer and wine come from? Someone has suggested it was nothing to do with hangovers, but was originally a metaphor for one’s success in life. Beer in youth, followed by wine in midlife, suggests that one is going up in the world; whereas the reverse is true if you progress from wine to beer.

There is, however, a more immediate financial aspect. If you start with beer, then move on to the (more expensive) wine, you are probably going to carelessly drink more of the latter, costlier drink. Start with modest consumption of a good wine, then move on to the cheaper beer when you’re a bit tipsy, and you may not spend as much. 

This is linked to a notion that the order governs the quantity; if you start with beer, you are in a quaffing mode, which leads to disaster when you move on to wine, and continue drinking at the same rate. If you start by sipping wine, the theory goes, you continue sipping if you move on to beer, and so consume less and suffer less. 

Nonsense, in my experience. By this logic, if you began the evening with a slug of vodka, you’d continue by downing tiny measures of beer out of shot glasses. Drinks each have their own, natural manner in which they should be consumed. Beer is meant to be quaffed, wine is emphatically notwhile as I painfully discovered, it is inadvisable to down port by the tankard.  Each, as another adage has it, to their own.

So I’m giving up on adages. Wine before beer, beer before wine, grape not grain, beer before liquor – none of them have succeeded in preventing a hangover, although I confess to having enjoyed the trials if not the verdicts. 

Perhaps the hangover is the occupational hazard of the wine drinker, a negative accompaniment like weeds to a gardener. Deal with them, and carry on, because you’ll never stop them. I certainly haven’t succeeded in preventing either.

And you know what they say. If at first you don’t succeed, save time and give up now.