Thursday 25 October 2012

A little knowledge – Chateau Saint-Paul 2010

Some say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, which if true would render CJ a public menace. All I can say is that a little knowledge is a time-consuming thing, as I wander in and out of my local wine-retailing establishments, trying to find a wine which accords with my unfortunate combination of high aspirations and low income.

The trouble with learning just a little about wine is that you know only too well why you do not want to buy most of the stuff you can afford. Blended rubbish, plain rubbish, too young, horrible, won’t go (too bland), won’t go (too spicy), can’t imagine that on the table.

It’s Sunday evening, and Mrs K is doing one of her splendid dishes for the two of us. My (supposedly simpler) job is to provide a bottle of wine to accompany it.

I have now calculated that there are some nine establishments within walking distance of my house where I can buy wine, from the posh merchants with an ampersand, through the supermarkets and popular off-licences, to the Mace on the corner. I calculated this by the expedient of visiting all of them in search of a bottle. And out of sheer desperation I ended up in Marks & Spencer, where I spotted this, Chateau Saint-Paul, a 2010 Haut Medoc.

Facing the right way, as it obviously was on the shelf (and as I would ensure on the table) this looks magnificent, reminiscent of Chateau Margaux.  Turn it the wrong way, however, and you are deluged with useless information from Marks & Spencer, telling you how the glass bottle is recyclable, and that you will need a corkscrew to open it. I think even CJ’s little knowledge would stretch that far.

But what really sold it to me was this “shelf-talker” as I believe they are called, quoting Jancis Robinson’s wonderful website:

So, it’s a done deal. Even at three times the amount CJ would spend, it should be worth it for such a claret. 

Now, should I avoid the queues and pay at the self-service till? No, because I am buying a bottle of wine, and despite the fact that its pricepoint is way above that which a teenager would pay to get drunk, the whole supposedly efficient process will have to be halted until an assistant comes over to confirm the sad but blindingly obvious fact that I am over 18.

Would I like to have a bag? Yes, I would rather not wander up the road swinging a naked bottle of claret by the neck like an Indian club. Would I like to have a bag for 5p? No, not unless you have one which does not bear your name. I don’t mind paying for a bag, but I do mind paying to promote your establishment on my journey home.

But my little knowledge was nagging at me while I paid. This is 2010 Bordeaux, a great year I thought, but only just released. Surely it needs more time? Surely this is too young for a good Bordeaux? Not thoughts which would trouble a less-knowledgable M&S customer, who might be expecting wine as fresh as their meat. 

Nevertheless, I was worried enough by my little knowledge to taste the wine while Mrs K was cooking. Its colour was plum, rather than crimson – and it was as firm as a fence. Hard and unyielding, even after a couple of hours. Mrs K’s abrupt verdict was that it tasted like paint, which put a interesting gloss on it.

So I thought after dinner that I ought to check the Purple Pages for myself. Was I right about the vintage? Well, guess what; first, M&S are actually quoting a review of the 2009, not the 2010. In terms of proper Bordeaux, that is not the same wine at all.

And worse in a way, like one of those edited movie reviews, that quote is missing its final punchline: “Only problem is that ideally you should keep it a bit.” 

What Jancis’s site actually says about this wine, the 2010, tasted just last month (Sept 2012), is: “Dark purple. Evolved, rather vegetal wine. Correct and smooth but not very vital. Dead, rather bloody finish. Very chewy finish.” Perhaps not as enthusiastic as the 2009 review they quoted? 

And here’s the thing. Jancis suggests drinking this wine 2015 to 2020. 

Which could be fine, given that Homeland’s not on until 2100. But she’s talking about years. This wine needs to wait for another 3 to 8 years, and Mrs K’s polpette don’t take that long.

Whether they quote the right review or the wrong one, M&S clearly have no intention of telling you the bit in either of them about this wine needing time to mature. Because of course, the average M&S customer is not in the market for a wine to lay down for 8 years. They are buying ready meals, for tonight; the clue is in the word “ready”. M&S wouldn’t sell an apple which wasn’t ready to consume; why do it with a wine?

I should have trusted my little knowledge. It may be a dangerous thing but, like many dangerous weapons, sometimes it’s your only defence.


Thursday 18 October 2012

Known Unknowns: Nuits-Saint-Georges and Château Haut-Bana

So I look at the wine rack in the kitchen the other day, and there is a bottle in it which I have no recollection of purchasing. It's normally pretty easy to see what's in the rack and what's not, because the rack (as a rule) has almost nothing in it on account of me drinking everything before it gets a chance to stop moving, let alone age in a horizontal position. No more than five bottles in a rack that can hold forty-eight results in clarity and a simpler life.

Except that this time, I squint at the rack's contents and what do I find but a bottle of 2002 Nuits-Saint-Georges, which, frankly, scares the lights out of me.

'Where did this come from?' I bleat at my wife.
'I have no idea,' she says. 'Is it something special?'
'Is it something special?' I repeat. 'Well, it's only a 2002 Nuits-Saint-Georges. Where the hell did we get a bottle of Nuits-Saint-Georges from?'

My first inclination is to assume that we've stolen it from a shop or from someone passing through the house. My next inclination is to assume that we've inadvertently bought it, only we would never inadvertently buy anything that looks even half-way classy, given our unshakeable belief in the sovereign benefits of living a hairsbreadth above the poverty threshold. Then I start to wonder if I'm not over-reacting, allowing myself to be bullied by the bottle just because it has a smartly-printed label, a cork and a date. What do I know about Nuits-Saint-Georges, anyway? It might be famous for its pretentious demeanour and crappy taste.

I dig out my Ultimate Encyclopedia of Wine (1996 edition) and check out what it has to say about Nuits-Saint-Georges. A 'Tough, broody wine that usually needs at least five years to soften', is the bad news, but the good news is that Nuits-Saint-Georges is 'Among the best buys in Burgundy' if you get a decent one. Panting slightly, I then turn to the terrifying World Atlas of Wine (1985 edition, reprinted) for additional, if hopelessly out-of-date, confirmation. Jackpot, as it turns out: 'The quality is very high and consistent: they are big strong wines.' I close the book with a triumphant slap, before going off to check out the internet prices of such a fabulous drink. Turns out we're looking at anything between £30 and £70 a go, depending, and so I go back to my own bottle and stare at it in wonder.

Then I remember: it is a fantastically kind thank-you present from a family friend.

'It's from Patrick,' I announce, importantly.
'Of course it is,' says my wife.
'I knew that,' I say.

I carry on staring at the bottle. The problem is, now we've identified its provenance, what do we do with this stupendous thing? Kingsley Amis would argue that it must be drunk with food, but what kind of food? Where is there a meal intimidating enough to serve this drink with? I cooked a joint of beef the other day and even that simplest of dishes turned supertough, an epic of chewing as if we were trying to eat the Goodyear dirigible. PK (natch) would decant it with full honours, and drink it with or without food from a baby's-head-sized wine balloon, striking attitudes as he went. I am half-minded to binge on the whole thing and see what happens: I might break through to the 5th dimension; I might go blind. In the end, I do nothing, of course. It is just too significant a drink for me to handle. It is beyond my competence.

At which point I realise that I am already drinking something quite a lot better than I am used to. It's red. It's had a moment to breathe. I'm getting a nice musty, almost seaweedy nose, good balance of tannins and acidity, entertaining finish. There is also a date on the label and I had to pull a cork out to get at the grog in the first place. Mildly horrified, I inspect the bottle further. It turns out to be a Médoc, Château Haut-Bana. What on earth is that? Did I buy this? It costs the thick end of £9, almost twice my Platonic budget. I am caught in the middle of The Ipcress File and I am not Michael Caine.

'Where did this come from?' I bleat at my wife.
'Not again,' she says.


Monday 8 October 2012

It's just like… Nectar – Berberana Riserva Rioja

Given some of the wines I consume, I sometimes think I deserve a reward. And finally, here it is. A wine with reward points. Actually, a wine with its very own loyalty scheme.

Now, I’m a little wary of loyalty schemes. Every other shop and service seems to ask me whether I possess their loyalty card. “How dare you, madam,” I am often tempted to answer. “Do I look like one of your regular customers?” 

Or, perhaps, “Are you saying that some people come back?”

Mrs K, however, carries around a wad of loyalty ID like a deck of playing cards. There’s one from the poncy bread shop, one from the gastropub, and several from coffee bars, the very word ‘several’ surely making a mockery of any concept of loyalty. She also has a sophisticated one from the chemist, where I hope never to be returning myself unless I develop a loyalty for verrucas.

So wine is late to the game. Reward schemes have been around for quite a while now; some forty years ago, my father used to collect the vouchers from his Players No6 cigarettes. Designed to look like tiny banknotes, they sat in a sideboard drawer like miniature wads of cash in a villain’s briefcase. Eventually he would have enough for a ‘gift’, from their glossy catalogue. Little did we realise he was smoking himself into an early grave, although I believe someone did publicise the absurdity of the scheme by asking how many coupons they required for an iron lung.

Then there were Green Shield Stamps. Someone has calculated that, in order to get sufficient stamps for a Kenwood Chef in 1965, you would have had to spend £1024, the price then of a large family car. A single book of stamps cost £32 to acquire, which would be a staggering £511 today, and could be exchanged for…a mouth organ. 

In moments of boredom I confess I have participated in online surveys, where I have earned Air Miles, thanks to my fictitious demographic of an immensely affluent globetrotting father of nine. I’ve earned, ooh, several Air Miles. I could probably fly for nothing, right now, from Gatwick to, say, Stansted.

But primus inter pares is the Nectar card, upon which we accumulate hundreds of points by shopping at Sainsbury’s, and driving our car unnecessary miles in search of BP petrol stations. Now, don’t get overexcited. 500 Nectar points gives you £2.50 to spend at Argos, or Amazon. Which means that spectacular-sounding, TV-advertised offer of 1000 Nectar points – a thousand! – when you buy your car insurance through a particular website is actually worth…a fiver. A whole £5. 

So it was with mixed emotions that I saw this bargain bottle of Berberana Riserva Rioja, proudly announcing its “One Cork, One Point” rewards scheme. “Log In, Collect Points, Get Rewards” the back label confirms. 

I think I will approach with due suspicion any wine which has to reward people for drinking it. And a first, tentative and somewhat unsatisfying sip confirms that this is a mediocre, drinkable but actually rather unrewarding wine. However, I am to be compensated for my efforts! I hurry to their website for my reward, like a child promised a sweet after cough medicine.

And of course, it’s a letdown. Out of 17 ‘rewards’, 12 are from venues like hotels which are part of the same conglomerate as Berberana itself. Not one is particularly appealing to me. For 5 points, I can claim two free glasses of wine at their London restaurant; frankly, after getting through 5 whole bottles of this stuff, the last thing I’d want is two glasses more. And the points required for rewards rapidly escalate, through 10, 30 and 75 points (eg bottles), until they are eventually asking 100 points for a “luxury” reward.

Now, I’m sure that Berberana are not suggesting that they are encouraging us to drink to excess. Nevertheless, I do feel it would be medically ill-advised to actually set out to drink 100 bottles of mediocre wine.

This is not because of the consumption of what I calculate to be 1,010 units of alcohol, or just over eight months’ constant daily drinking at current NHS guidelines. 

It has more to do with the potentially violent reaction of one’s wife, as case after case of Berberana are ferried through our front door like Mickey’s brooms in Fantasia

“Don’t worry dear,” I’d cry, as the boxes pile up into a Rachel Whiteread sculpture, “My liver can take it, and at the end we’ll have a luxury two nights at the Hacienda Zorita in Spain. 

“Travel not included.”

Realistically, the only people I can imagine collecting all those corks are waiters and event organisers, pocketing the points from bottles other people have paid for. 

If you are unfortunate enough to pay the full price of this wine, you will spend £1049 to gain your reward of two nights in their hotel. Where you will stay in ‘luxury’ alongside a bunch of off-duty waiters. And never mind that, you will have to consume more than eight entire cases of utterly mediocre wine.

For which I would expect far greater reward.  Like, two mouth organs.


Thursday 4 October 2012

SPAR Autumn Wine Event: Valencia Vino Blanco

So PK gets one of his mad enthusiasms, insisting that he's found something that I cannot afford to pass up and that, whatever it is, it has got me written all the way through it like a stick of Brighton rock. Turns out he's referring to the SPAR autumn winefest rather than a Bentley, but I am no match for his implacable energies and have to admit that, yes, an hour spent poking around a small shabby supermarket chain looking for rock-bottom wines is pretty much my idea of a good time.

Not that you could tell this from the associated SPAR press release, which waves its arms frantically as it announces 'A host of fantastic quality SPAR brand wines' to be 'Backed by extensive marketing support including consumer press advertising, POS material, in-store tastings and PR.' Apparently, 'SPAR’s spring Wine Festival earlier this year saw sparkling success', while 'As a mark of their fantastic quality, a host of SPAR brand wines have been recognised by the international wine trade this year'. SPAR is actually a Dutch company, its name originally De Spar, an acronym for Door Eendrachtig Samenwerken Profiteren Allen Regelmatig, or Everyone Regularly Profits Through United Collaboration, which has a nice 1930's collectivist ring to it, a hint of North Korea. Equally, and at the same time, it is not what you'd call a glamour destination, usually found in largeish villages in the sticks, or at the marginally more weed-strewn ends of smallish towns.
In fact it takes me a while to locate my nearest SPAR, which although not a million miles as the crow flies, involves a forty-minute drive of scarcely plausible complexity at the end of which I find myself parking my car round the back of an Isthmian League football ground amid a heap of yellowing newspapers and discarded crisp packets. As I walk away from it, I turn and raise my hand in tremulous farewell, expecting never to see the vehicle again.

On the other hand, I am right next door to the SPAR, which turns out to be a local micromart with a few sausage rolls slumbering in a warmer and some copies of Closer on the rack. The in-store wine tastings and PR are either not there or so subtly done that they are invisible. In fact wine of any sort is almost invisible, so cunningly spread over three different locations within the store that it keeps coming as a surprise to me to find anything stonger than Listerene on the shelves.

Still. I elbow aside a pensioner and an obese schoolchild and get down to business. There is a dusty knot of wine giveaways (two for a tenner, white and red) on a shelf at about knee height but no, I am strong and head remorselessly for things that look like they might be part of the big SPAR Autumn Wine Event. I find the usual suspects, Wolf Blass, Gallo brothers' Turning Leaf, that kind of thing, but no again, you can get these anywhere, especially at the local newsagent, what I want is something authentically SPAR, and after what seems like a lifetime of fuddled probings under the increasingly scornful gaze of the guy behind the counter, I find a bottle of Valencia Vino Tinto at 5.49 and another of Valencia Vino Blanco for a mere 4.99. Both 'Hand Selected By WIne Experts For SPAR' it says comfortingly on the label, and although the choice in this particular outlet is nothing like the range listed on the SPAR website (e.g. the SPAR Bronze Award-winning Chablis, or the SPAR Commended Montepulciano, with full heavy-breathing text accompaniment) it's near enough and the stuff comes home with me.

Taste sensations? Could be worse: the white (no grape varieties named) gives you a spritz of citrus at the start with a quick burp of acidity at the end and nothing much in between, but there's nothing wrong with that. Similarly, the red (no grape varieties named) has a bit of Fruit Gums, a bit of Sarsons Malt Vinegar, and a nice, chesty finish that can be felt between the shoulderblades. It does the job, and what else did I expect? I mean if Waitrose can make me feel that they're doing me a favour when they sell me their everyday drinking rust remover, then I'm not going to complain about SPAR's more self-effacing take on the same stuff.

My only grievance is nothing much to do with the wine and more to do with SPAR's half-arsed, indeed, faintly tragic, idea of what constitutes a promotion. Where are the tables with gingham tablecloths? Where are the glossy brochures? I mean, they've got something worth celebrating: a selection of borderline drinkable wines at marginally approachable prices. Let's not hide it like a guilty secret among the Dreft and the Maltesers. Let's get behind it. Let's be proud, in a low-rent kind of way. Let's shout it from the rooftops, or failing that, from the junction of the A238 and the A2043, just south of Norbiton Station.