Wednesday 26 September 2012

Drinking wine with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace

As I was drinking wine with the Archbishop of Canterbury,…

There now, that’s got some attention. Some of you may remember my legendary piece about drinking wine with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street. (If you don’t remember it, you can visit it here and now, and I’ll just pause until you get back.) Last week, I was able to climb even higher in the UK’s Order of Precedencehaving been invited to a reception at Lambeth Palace, for wine with the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Step one was to check how to address the Primate of All England. I then spent the prior evening at home practising, with a slight, deferential lowering of the head, the phrase “Good evening, Your Grace”, a phrase I am unlikely ever again to be able to utter appropriately. 

(As that evening wore on, Mrs K became increasingly irritated with my other, less appropriate variations such as “Thank you, Your Grace”, “Yes, another glass please, Your Grace”, and “Well, if there is another sausage going, Your Grace…”) 

Like most Londoners, I’m familiar only with the somewhat forbidding dark Tudor brick gatehouse of the Palace, on the bank of the Thames. But behind it, after namechecks etc, lies the path to  the Palace itself, in a rather more collegiate yellow stone.The surrounding grounds contain gardens and apple trees, of which (as you will soon see) the Palace kitchens make use. 

You pass through the Palace doorway, and realise you must be in the company of good people, because the cloakroom lacks not only an attendant, but any kind of numbering or security system. Who indeed would steal from the house of an Archbishop? (Apart from a King or two…)

Then up a grand staircase, to where the Archbishop of Canterbury himself waits in the corridor, and welcomes each of his guests personally. This is a different tactic to that employed by the Prime Minister, who ghosts into the reception room once it’s filled. I therefore got my chance to shake hands and say my cherished phrase. Sobriety at this early stage ensured that I did not say “Good Grace, your evening.”

And you pass on, along a corridor lined with portraits of his predecessors, to the Archbishop’s reception itself, held in The Guard Room, a magnificent panelled chamber with arch-braced roof. The Lambeth Palace website unfortunately refers to this as having been  “the Archbishop’s principle audience room”. I imagine they mean to say “principal”; either that, or audiences without principles are simply not entertained. 

Unlike Downing Street, we were trusted with proper wine glasses, presumably on the basis that no-one could possibly be thinking of “glassing” the host. As opposed to glassing the Host, which would be another matter entirely. And I was delighted to see that cocktail sausages were among the canapes. Perhaps, after all, I might be grateful for having rehearsed a sausage-related remark. 

The apple sauce offered alongside the sausages comes from the Palace itself, a waitress explained. What about the wine, I asked? She looked at me as if I was insane. No, she said with a patient smile, I think that comes from New Zealand.

What I meant, of course, was to ask whether it comes from the Archbishop’s own cellar, or whether a van pulls up every once in a while purely to, er, service his guests. Because the white was indeed from New Zealand; Fairleigh Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2011. It costs £8.99 from Majestic, the wine warehouse, and given that it’s produced excusively for them, I think we can assume that, barring divine intervention, from thence it actually came. I stuck to the red, a perfectly palatable Australian; Oxford Landing Estates Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz 2010. Coincidentally this is also available via Majestic, who say that it “goes well with Sunday roasts”, a relationship to the Sabbath which may or may not boost its Church credentials. 

It seemed just a little disappointing, to be in such unique circumstances, chatting with the Archbishop of Canterbury (about the poetry of TS Eliot, as you ask…) and drinking wine from somewhere as commonplace as Majestic. I mean, I shop there. CJ has shopped there. Like the venue and the meeting, I wish the wine could have been special and interesting too. When the occasion is unique, it’s a shame the wine is everyday.

What hosting tips have I gleaned from drinking wine with these two most senior figures? Well, it seems that Rule Number One of hosting a reception with wine is that…you don’t drink the wine. Neither of my hosts drank any of their wine. Now of course, they may be nervous of committing an inebriated faux pas, lunging for remaining sausages, stumbling into people and spilling wine, which would be quoted all over the newspapers next day (CRASH N’SPLASH BANGER CLASH AT ARCHBISH BASH!)

But it may be that they know how humdrum the wine actually is at such functions. Of course, you’re not supposed to notice or remember it. The exclusive surroundings, the speech, your one and only conversation with the host, all of those you are supposed to remember; the wine is simply lubrication. If the occasion, the host or the venue are once in a lifetime, it seems the wine can be everyday. Which is a shame for those of us who think the wine could easily be special, too.

The lesson of all this is simple. The more significant you are, the less significant the wine you can serve.

Which is why I must always serve my guests decent wine.


Thursday 20 September 2012

Cheapskate: Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru

So PK and I are at a wine-tasting run by the admirable Liberty Wines, and we're trying to look august and senatorial rather than betting-shop seedy, so, having arrived late already we sit as carefully as we can down to lunch and get talking to a mover and shaker in the high-end wine trade. This is a guy who clearly knows a stelvin from a bung made out of bunched-up table napkins, and who has a smarter haircut than either of us, and he makes at least two salient points, which, coming from him, sound more salient than they would coming from either of us. They are:

1) Anyone who pays the full asking price for a bottle of supermarket wine is an idiot. Supermarkets now have such a Byzantine philosophy of consumer confusion, involving excessive choice multiplied by incessant special offers, that pricing bears no relationship to actual value. The only sensible course of action is to wait for one of your preferred wines to pitch up with 25% off and buy then.

Perhaps we knew that already, but it's nice to hear it from the trade. On the other hand,

2) Give the insanely high levels of duty on wine in the UK + transport costs + packaging/point of sale materials/tasteful shelving and all the other crap surrounding the purchasing of wine, there are no cheap wines left in this country, there never really were, and we'd better get used (once more, just like our parents) to the idea of wine as luxury rather than everyday consumable. We don't live in France, and we're not going to. Unless we actually go and live in France.

Well, agreed PK and I, he would say (2), on account of being a high-end wine guy. But there was nonetheless a sobering vestigial truth about it, or it would have been sobering if we hadn't rather made pigs of ourselves over a red Burgundy that was sitting, unguarded, in the middle of the table. And if it was true, it meant that my entire life's work, to find cheap drinkable grog in the UK, was utterly wasted (see footnote). I know that I might have been trying to live like a provençal Frenchman, with all the low-cost rough'n'ready douceurs and general freebies that implies, while having at the same time to pay London prices, but I thought that there was at least only one direction of travel, and that was always towards better and more value-packed wine, if not to the level of living it large in Manosque, at least to the point where I could freely pour out my pauper's drink and not choke on it. Why else are we in the EU?

Stricken, I fell to brooding on things that you can get in this stiflingly overpriced country that still, just about, represent reasonable value for money. After about ten minutes, I had thought of:

- Illegally downloaded music
- A packet of Tesco value white sliced bread
- Free newspapers, or, better yet, a copy of The Sun that someone's left behind on the tube
- Cigarettes are still affordable, at around 40p a smoke
- An Aston Martin DB9. Yes, it'll set you back £130,000. But just look at it
- Getting your shoes re-soled

At no point could I think of anything which contained the ideas of wine and value for money within the same larger concept, unless you include Aldi's 2.99 range, which is certainly well-priced, but which, given my last experience with Aldi, may not be drinkable by humans.

And then it occured to me, just as the preceding thought exited my head, that even as I was thinking that previous thought, I happened to be drinking some Heidsieck Brut Reserve and writing next to its entry in the catalogue, Big, gassy & soapy; and I saw the merest ray of hope, no bigger than a speck of dandruff. Because the fact is, if you can scrounge an invite to the occasional wine tasting, you can consolidate value and quality, because the stuff's usually good, and it's free, and damn me if I wasn't knocking back some 50-a-bottle Heidsieck Champagne as if I had every right to, while simultaneously calling it Big, gassy and soapy. And not spitting quite as rigorously as I ought to. Beat that, if you can.

And here's the clincher. The smart guy in the wine business finished his gloomy purview with an instance of what he understood by the value/quality nexus, which turned out to be a prize-winning Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru, retailing at approximately 65 a bottle.

- Try it, he said. It's pretty good.

So we did. And, to our cost-effective surprise, it was, not least because we weren't paying. There you go: the problem contains the lineaments of its own solution, and Norman Vincent Peale was right.


Footnote: none of this is strictly true

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Another time, another country – Les Dauphins Cotes Du Rhone Villages

Now, what’s this. Someone in wine marketing has clearly decided that la belle epoque now stands for both heritage and liveliness, a potentially attractive combination to which only a French winemaker might lay claim. Its back label declares that “Les Dauphins represents all that is good about the heritage of classic French wine”, which is quite some claim, from a £7.99 wine with a noisy label and a plastic cork. But then, they have had some time to achieve that, if not since la belle epoque itself, then certainly since Les Dauphins’ registration as a marque deposee in, er, March 2011.

Personally, I thought there were good things about the heritage of classic French wine which were to do with hushed elegance, and quiet underspoken authority, and just a tad more time. But when it comes to France, what do I know?

For sadly, my own education in French centred upon pages of the irritating activities of Jean-Claude and his famille. There were certainly aspects of a contemporary French lifestyle which appealed to teenage Londoners; but Jean-Claude seemed curiously oblivious to the smoking, philosophising and attractively liberal sexual attitudes supposedly being enjoyed by his compatriots. Is Jean-Claude perhaps today going to sit in a café, staring morosely but thoughtfully through a Gauloises fug, until Emmanuelle walks in? 

No. Jean-Claude is going out yet again with his entire famille, incorporating a large number of bafflingly distant relatives. He is going to don and describe a frankly unneccessary amount of clothing. Far from staring thoughtfully into space, he is going to ask his family continual, stupid questions about their mode of transport, the weather and the time of day.

And is he going to go somewhere useful like the corner shop, where I can learn the French for twenty cigarettes and a porno mag? 

No. He is going to go to the zoo, where I will be expected to learn the French names of several dozen animals, few of which I am likely to encounter in a café.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I did badly at French. I disappointed my father by proving unable to order him a cup of tea on a day trip to Calais. It was only later that I thought to question why one would go all the way to Calais, and drink tea.

However, if my hard-earned O-Level taught me anything, it’s that attention to the text is paramount. So following their opening remark, let us do a bit of crit on the rest of Les Dauphins’ back label, which seems, with suspicious convenience, to have already been translated for the English-speaking market. 

“The term Villages signifies that it comes from specific quality villages in the Rhone and is a step up in quality” Indeed; this peasant-sounding Cotes du Rhones Villages is actually superior to the Cotes du Rhone Reserve which Les Dauphins also make. This is part of their heritage. It is also counter-intuitive French nonsense of the kind which makes ordinary wine consumers despair. 

It’s made by the leading producer in the region, Cellier des Dauphins.” Cellier des Dauphins is actually a co-operative, representing over 3000 wine growers, with a production of 55 million bottles. So ‘leading’ in a somewhat industrial sense. Their website focusses upon the Cellier des Dauphins range itself, which affects an ancient, rustic kind of vibe that sits uneasily with the output from their 86 thermo-regulated stainless steel wine tanks

Finally, the wine itself. “Expect a classic Rhone wine, bursting with ripe summer fruits, all backed up with rich, spicy, peppery flavours. Great with all red meats especially beef or lamb”. Once again, no place for those hard-learned zoo animals. 

“Ideal if you like a glass of red with character.”

Well.  There are characters and characters. This wine is ferociously aggressive upon opening, as indeed was the normally saintly Mrs K, who swore violently upon tasting it. It has a blast like a bath cleaning product. That departs to leave a rather acrid yet strangely shallow drink, entirely absent of such declared constituents as fruits, spices or indeed flavours. Anyone led to “Expect a classic Rhone wine…” will be sorely disappointed.

I eventually found my French spiritual home. It is the Café de Flore, in Saint Germain des Pres, that essential existentialist hangout. Conveniently, just around the corner is Deyrolle, perhaps the only place in Paris apart from the zoo itself where it is an advantage to possess an O-Level knowledge of the French names of exotic animals.

Les Dauphins is not on the wine list at the Café de Flore.  And I think we can safely assume that, where tables are concerned about all that is good about the heritage of classic French wine, Les Dauphins will actually remain something of an etranger.


Wednesday 5 September 2012

In A Tight Spot: Undurraga Brut NV, Tesco Mouthwash

So wine has taken a bit of a back seat in the last few days, on account of: the younger son finally coming down from University with (a) a degree (b) his girlfriend; my Brother-in-Law's 60th Birthday (for which I actually gave him a bottle of well flash Aloxe Corton); the imminent arrival of some friends all the way from California, which meant licking the entire house clean, a job which took a week; and the collapse of the living room ceiling.

This last happened on Saturday morning at half-past nine. We were seriously thinking about getting up, when a huge crash announced itself from the room below. We blundered downstairs to find the room looking as if an IED had partially exploded, crap everywhere, plaster dust hanging in the air like a cheap special effect and about a quarter of the ceiling on the floor. We can't get it all replastered and repainted in time (now that we've licked the living room clean again) so we and our guests will have to sit underneath this sinister hole (which can at least act as metaphor for the state of the nation) and try and make conversation without getting tense. And when the Californians leave next week, another friend, this time from New York, arrives a day later to take their place. Insofar as I have any mental space for wine, I am seeing it mainly as an analgesic.

Very well: a dash to Majestic, currently the front-runner for acceptable mainstream grog at tolerable prices, will sort out all my problems. In I go, haunt the French reds in a dazed and seamy fashion for a few minutes, get some fizzy stuff at the same time, pant my way over to the till, where the intelligent young operative in charge asks if I would like a printout of the tasting notes that accompany the point-of-sale price information.

'Well, I don't know,' I say, trying to sound competent.
'It's just there, you never know, it might be worth looking at.'
'Isn't it the usual things about floral notes and supple finishes?'
'Some people find it useful.'
'Oh, all right, then,' I say, keeping a note of authority in my voice. I mean, the kid's half my age.
'It doesn't take a minute.'

Nor does it. I go home with my case and a ½ of booze, plus a crib-sheet telling me what to think about the stuff I've just paid for. As in, Fleurie 2011, Labouré-Roi...Red fruit and perfume nose...soft finish with supple tannins...lots of fresh fruit... Or the Côtes du Rhône Belleruche 2010...Rich aromas...smooth tannins, rich blackberry...partner most meat dishes... Or the Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene...Ideal as an apéritif... I don't know if this enhances my appreciation of the wines or not; but I do acquire the unshakeable impression that whatever I may think of myself as a connoisseur, the young man at the till clearly reckoned me as vacant as an empty fire bucket and in need of filling up with something useful.

What did I just buy? It was a bit of a mix. Enough to suggest that I don't really know what I'm doing, the usual story, and grab recklessly at anything that looks right. What should I have said?

'No thank you. I won't bother with the crib sheet. I think if I know anything, I know my wines.'
'Of course, sir. Your bearing confirms it. Please don't impugn our motives in your wine blog.'

And then I could have simply enjoyed my Chilean Champagne substitute, Undurraga Brut, which I took round to someone else's house to try out. There a fellow-drinker said it had a bouquet of elderflowers, and by heaven she was right. It does, and it's delicious - as sheerly cherishable as the bottle of 3.99 Tesco Sauvignon Blanc I picked up in a moment of inattention, which tasted of nothing in a cleasing kind of way, but did a great job of dulling the pain of (a) the tasting notes (b) the hole in the ceiling. Good night, everybody.