Thursday 29 November 2012

Chilean White Headache

So I'm sitting in this hotel in Liverpool, sharing a bottle of generic Chilean White over the dinner table, and fear seizes my heart as I start on the contents of the bottle, not because it's particularly terrible, or because it's a bit room temperature rather than subtly misted, or even because I'm in Liverpool, but because it's an inoffensive white wine and I only have to go near an inoffensive white wine these days to get a headache the size of a tractor tyre. And I have no idea why.

Convention has it that if you want to avoid a head, then lay off the red. Also, explicitly lay off Port (which, it must be said, is usually as much fun to drink as the contents of a storm drain filled with granulated sugar), don't mix your drinks, inhale a nice dry white in a ladylike fashion and all will be well. But I can drink quite a lot of really quite bad red and only feel slightly fuddled in the morning, whereas if I tackle something as presentable, even, as the Wine Society'sWhite Burgundy, a drink generally beyond the scope of my ambitions, my temples start to throb and I feel an existential foreboding combined with déjà vu and a mystical sense of loss.

What is this? Age-related degeneration? It started this year, and only affects still, not sparkling, whites. Ten minutes' dithering search on the internet leaves me no wiser. 

Apparently you get a headache from drinking neither-here-nor-there white wine because

- It contains lots of sulfites. In this respect it is the same as red, of course

- It's served too cold, so you get an ice-cream headache

- It is sold unseasonably immature, and is therefore full of rough edges. Well, the last bottle of red I put away was a 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon from somewhere, which, while violent, did no lasting damage

- You're not eating anything with it because it's one of those tippling kind of drinks. You should always eat while drinking and serve you right if you don't

- Some people just don't like the congeners in white wine and that's all there is to it

- Ordinary white wine is so unremarkable you're drinking twice as much without noticing, you drunkard

- You're a cheapskate. Buy something more expensive, therefore less harmful

Depressed by the information revolution I conclude that maybe I am going to have to resign myself to this: still whites and me are not going to get along, nowadays, except with difficulty, until I experience some kind of metabolic revolution at the very least.

It could be worse. Nobody died. I haven't lost any money. Only now I have the gloomy apprehension that this is the first term in that process which I have observed in others: the gradual shrinkage of drinking possibilities.

My wife, for instance, started her drinking career happily consuming whites, reds, spirits, everything except lager. Then the still whites became unpalatable (made her teeth hurt), followed by the reds. A year ago she started to quail at Champagne, a moment of great hand-wringing and existential doubt. Gin & tonics, which she used to guzzle as enthusiastically as any provincial GP, are now off the menu. All she can look forward to is whisky, an occasional Bloody Mary and (God help us) a dry cider on warm days.

And she is not the only one. Someone over here can't drink beer any more; someone else can't cope with dessert wines or chocolate, either jointly or severally; another acquaintance reveals that they've never really liked wine at all, ever, and prefer coffee. The world is filling up with people who have drinking inhibitions and dietary restrictions (when the Americans came to stay, one couldn't eat complicated vegetables while the other had forsworn dairy products, so that was the asparagus in butter completely fucked) and the horizon is obscured by cloud.

If I am about to join them, then bang goes what's left of my lust for life. Instead it will be replaced by a valetudinarian's piffling fixations. I shall soon be like the ridiculous Mr. Woodhouse in Jane Austen's Emma, plucking at people's sleeves and saying 'You and I will have a nice basin of gruel together'. It's either that, or drinking what I like and having to eat Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Sunday breakfast every day of the week: six fried eggs, plus a glass of laudanum and seltzer, to take the pain away. Which actually doesn't sound like a bad idea, now I think of it.


Thursday 15 November 2012

Great Wine Moments In Movie History III: Withnail And I

Withnail and I, a British masterpiece from 1987, is so profligate with its brilliance that if it has a problem, it's that it's one of those movies which too easily reduces itself to scene-spotting and quote-topping. If I come up with 'We've gone on holiday by mistake,' you'll come back with 'I feel like a pig shat in my head.' If you announce, 'We are not drunks, we are multi-millionaires!' then I reply with, 'I think it's time to release you from the legumes, and transfer your talents to the meat.' If I say, 'The entire sink's gone rotten,' you say, 'Then the fucker will rue the day!' And so on. It is an obsessional movie, a movie about obsession. And it makes its admirers into obsessives as well.

If it has a plot at all then it notionally concerns one thing: the attempts of failed actors Withnail (played by Richard E Grant, magnificently hysterical) and Marwood, his pal (played by Paul McGann, just on the edge of sanity, a look of constant terror on his face, as if about to be dragged into a threshing machine), to get wasted, even to the brink of death. No drug is too foul or too inappropriate: from speed, to lighter fluid, to dope, to anti-freeze, nothing is beneath contempt.

The drug of choice, though, the one that really gets them through the day, is alcohol. 'A pair of quadruple whiskies,' gasps WIthnail at closing time, 'and a pair of pints.' In a genteel tea-shop, he yells, 'We want the finest wines available to humanity', shortly before being thrown out. Indeed, about the second thing that happens in the movie is Withnail announcing, in sepulchral tones, 'I've some extremely distressing news...We just ran out of wine.' Wine, a baffingly patrician drink for such a pair of low-lifers, is the release they crave.

And they get it, in quantity, at Uncle Monty's frightful country cottage. A chapter of accidents sees them flee London for some quiet time in a nameless part of the North. Monty, a vision of magisterial camp, delineated to perfection by Richard Griffiths, unexpectedly turns up with the right stuff. 'Which of you,' he asks, gazing humidly at the two young men, 'is going to be a splendid fellow and go down to the Rolls for the rest of the wine?' And the wine certainly looks pretty good, as they work their way through it, in the form of an accompaniment for a leg of lamb and in purely spontaneous, hard core boozing.

It should look good, because it actually is. Bruce Robinson, the mad genius - as writer and director - behind Withnail apparently acquired a job lot of superb wines from an idiot in Manchester who didn't know what he had. It came from a hotel that was closing down, where the proprietor had a load of old drink which he reckoned was 'muck' and far too musty to sell to anyone with a taste for the good life. The muck included Chateaux Beychevelle, Petrus and Margaux, two hundred bottles in all, for which Robinson paid a couple of hundred quid. His plan was to use them as props in the film then auction them at Sotheby's afterwards and make a small fortune.

As it turned out, the cast and crew (with the exception of Richard E Grant, a teetoller, not that you can tell from his peerless impression of an out-of-control toper) drank the lot, in the space of a fortnight. According to Robinson, 'It was saveloy and chips with...shall we have the Beychevelle or Margaux?' In the end, only the empty bottles remained, Grant sharing the final scene of the film with what was once a '53 Margaux, plus the wolves at London Zoo.

As it turns out, Withnail and I is in reality a rite-of-passage movie, quite touching by the end, but a movie set in such an exorbitantly degenerate landscape that internal and external chaos are only a sudden flinch away. One, also, in which great wines get necked as if they were straight out of the remainders bin. Which is one very good reason why the film is such a classic: its integrity, its fidelity to the whole ethos of derangement is such that not only do its makers appear to be downing the finest wines available to humanity without even a backward glance, they really were downing them. This anarchic generosity of spirit, this crazed identification with the film's characters, floods through the movie itself, making it luminous with truth, and even a rancid kind of love. Is it the last truly great British movie? I'm inclined to hold my glass up to the fading light and repeat the words of Uncle Monty - 'There can be no true beauty without decay,' and nod, sagely.


Thursday 8 November 2012

Dates to remember, remember – Pasico Old Vine Monastrell Shiraz 2011

Wine is for special occasions – that was the attitude of my parents. It’s fortunate for me, however, that whenever I questioned, on special occasions like Father’s or Mother’s Day, why there was no Children’s Day, I was always told (like so many kids) that was because “It’s children’s day every day!” So I feel it’s reasonable to have grown up with the idea that every day is special, with a consequent impact on my wine consumption. 

Some wine writers, however, still cling to the old-fashioned concept of special occasions, and of recommending appropriate wines for them. Which usually ends in a desperate list of wines whose links to the occasion are tenuous at best.

Look at what we had to put up with last week, for Halloween. Only editorial laziness can explain the fatuous recommendations that wine writers offered to celebrate Halloween, a cavalcade of wines of “blood” red or “ghostly” white, or wines which, er, had a skull on their label. If you want wines which are genuinely disturbing, there are several in CJ’s posts, which for less than £5 will really set your stomach churning. 

Or take Valentines Day. According to the Huffington Post, your wine is one of the elements that “will be considered and reconsidered for “maximum love impact”. Perhaps that requires tasting notes from Barry White. The article goes on to propose “Suggestions for a wine that screams ‘I love you!’”, eg it has a name like Saint Amour and Les Amoreuses, or has a heart-shape on its label 

It is invariably a failure when wine writers attempt to recommend particular wines for a particular event. Take wines for Easter, for example. They, of course, will go with lamb. Or chocolate.

What about Pancake Day? Is that even a special occasion? Yet here’s Tesco pitching in with a couple of wine suggestions. Okay, you might want to know which wines go with a tricky combination of lemon and sugar; but how many people are really likely to buy a wine specially to accompany something which is (a) dessert, (b) meant to be made from leftovers, and (c) largely consumed by children?

(The real justification for drinking wines on Shrove Tuesday would surely be to finish them up, as another part of your self-denial of the next forty days. This had clearly not been considered by the Pittsburgh Wine Examiner, who wrote with inappropriate enthusiasm about “Your go-to wines for Lent”!) 

New Year wine recommendations are invariably and understandably about sparkling whites. And they can be quite useful, in differentiating between the cavas, proseccos and champagnes on offer, and their relative prices. But then there’s always the writer who feels the need to recommend something unusual, just to be different. “People might have one glass of sparkling wine,” suggests a CBS Detroit site, “but then they’re looking for something else.” Indeed – a second glass of sparkling wine perhaps? Oh no. 

“Since New Year’s food is usually small bites,” they go on, “we recommend port.” 

Port? Are they insane? New Year hangovers are quite bad enough, without the cerebral devastation wreaked on those celebrating with port

Oh, and I’ve forgotten all of the articles coinciding with various nationalistic occasions. You can forgive the suggestions of English wines for St George’s Day, as with French wine on Bastille Day (although I still prefer commemorating US independence by drinking tea…). But was this writer serious in proposing a St Patrick’s Day recipe for Irish sangria?

So it was with a degree of trepidation that I saw Fiona Beckett, in The Guardian, recommending “the perfect Bonfire night red”. 

But Ms Beckett is a trusted wine writer. (Of course we trust a writer who once generously described Sediment as “A blog well worth reading, people”) And unlike, say, Valentine’s Day, with which there is no associated food, “Bonfire night” immediately suggests simple, warming dishes like sausages and stews, served on a cold Autumnal evening. 

Resisting any impulse to talk about sparklers, or skyrocketing prices (other writers take note), Ms Beckett steered us towards this food-appropriate “rich, spicy” Pasico Old Vine Monastrell Shiraz 2011 from Sainsburys, at just £5.99. The label does not depict flames, fireworks, or immolated effigies of terrorists. And as you can see from the empty bottle, it was thoroughly drinkable, lightly fruity with just a hint of spice to give it character, and no nasty surprises in the throat. 

Mrs K and I drank it happily with our simple Autumnal supper. For once, a thoroughly worthwhile topical recommendation. Just don’t try and tell me I have to wait until November 5th 2013 before drinking it again.


Thursday 1 November 2012

No. 110 - Waitrose Crisp'n'Floral

So it turns out that this is the 110th Sediment posting, unless the blog counter is on the fritz, and I feel I ought to use the moment to take stock in some way. More resonant, yes, if I'd thought to do it for blog no. 100 or even 99, but it didn't come to me in time. Or even blog 101 in a cod-Orwellian way, but anyhow.

What I decide to do is run through all those ghastly past blogs, weed out the ones that are plainly off-piste (talking about glassware, movies, freebies, the Archbishop of Canterbury) and contemplate those in which PK or I have tried a wine and reached a definite judgement on it. Then split those judgements into for and against. Then divide one total by the other to find out whether, on balance, we've drunk more satisfactory wines than unsatisfactory ones; or the other way round.

Absolute hell having to churn through 100+ old posts, as you can imagine, but here, allowing for arithmetical incompetence and general slippages, are the results. We both enjoyed more wines than we didn't enjoy, but the enjoyment rates differed. PK's hit rate was 3:2 - in other words, for every five bottles drunk, three would pass muster (or be positively tasty) and two would fail and be pronounced actively bad. CJ's, on the other hand, was a galloping 3.75:1. For every five bottles, nearly four would be okay, with only one turning out to be an actual dud. What does this tell us?

For a start, it confirms, if you didn't know it already, that if you begin with rock-bottom expectations, as do I, then you're much more likely to be satisfied by whatever comes your way. Although PK occasionally takes a run at some real muck, the sort I like, he spends much more time struggling to find something that meets his unwarrantedly high standards, albeit at a real-world price. But what is the result? More frequent disappointments, despite his years of expertise, high living, trainspotter's tendency to remember things, football-sized wine glasses and so on. Who, therefore, has the happier existence? 

Yes, you might well argue that if the conoisseur's lows are more frequent, the highs compensate by being more satisfying, more life-affirming. The dullard who's content to eat burgers every night will find a regular, unambitious gratification, but will his life be as fully lived as that of the foodhound who once in a while gets to go apeshit over a plate of cailles en sarcophages? Or is the goob with his Burger King actually conserving his energies for a later session with Henry James' The Golden Bowl, a supersubtle pleasure entirely opaque to the foodie, thus balancing out the equation? We don't know, without being given the whole picture.

On the other hand, I am in a position to tell you that although the low-life route looks simple enough to achieve and maintain, it actually takes a great deal of work. How can you not be tempted to go permanently upscale on the rare occasions you get to drink a decent wine? Yes, you say to yourself, holding the glass haughtily up to the light, I could see myself doing more of this. This is where I belong. It takes an almost monastic talent for self-denial to draw breath and remind yourself that drinking well all the time requires an investment of patience and effort, is prone to savage disappointments (PK passim) and costs about three times more money than you currently have. You must instead, as the late Jeffrey Bernard put it, reach for the ground, and always keep that ambition in mind. I mean, I may make it look easy, but it's not, it really is not.

In the light of which, good news at last from Waitrose: they're re-launching their own-brand wines! Apparently, the focus is on 'Provenance, heritage and straightforward styles', with a  mish-mash of red Bordeaux, Cava, a Grenache from southen France, a Chianti, the usual suspects. And at very fair prices: the Chianti coming in at £5.99, a Côtes du Rhone Villages at £6.99. This is exactly the kind of thing I need to keep my standards round about  knee-height, especially with a recently-tested bottle of something called Italian Crisp and Floral (as opposed to Crisp'n Dry, the popular chip oil) an unmissable £4.99. Does it taste of anything? Not that you'd notice: a bit of fragrance about half-way through, quite like Toilet Duck, perfectly pleasant, followed by a slight irritation at the back of the throat. It's alcoholic, which is good. Does it matter that it's neither here nor there? No, it does not. Neither here nor there is perfect. Neither here nor there is exactly where I live. Bring on 111!