Thursday 28 February 2013

Mixed cases, mixed blessings

The festive season had taken its toll upon my wine cellar. I clearly needed to replenish what I like to think of as “her infinite variety”. But the season had also taken an equivalent toll upon my bank balance. The obvious, simplest thing to do was to buy a mixed case of a dozen cheap bottles. But ay, there’s the rub.

Because to me, mixed cases are a suspect entity. They are the libertines of the wine world, offering carefree promiscuity over serious commitment.

We don’t purchase mixed selections in many areas of consumption. We commit to a particular variety. We never quite know which sandwiches we’ll make during a week, but we don’t buy loaves of bread comprising two slices each of white, wholemeal, seeded and rye. We are not offered a bag of mixed meats, six white and six red.

(As far as we know…)

And selections have always troubled me, because they invariably contain some things you don’t want. Like Christmas hampers; the providers lay out all of the contents like a wedding photo, and somewhere in the back row you can just spot the things that no-one actually wants – the dodgy preserved fruits, the iffy jar of chutney, the tin of pineapple in syrup.

Like boxes of chocolates, hiding their Yardley-flavoured crème centres, which taste as if you’ve just licked your Gran.

Or like Variety packs of cereals which, to my intense childhood irritation, and carefully hidden on opposite sides of the multipack, always contained two packets of boring Corn Flakes. Thanks to such instances of selection abuse, I have always had a suspicion of mixed cases of wines.

I know I am a cynic, for whom the light at the end of the tunnel must be seen as a train coming the other way. But wouldn't any merchant take this similar opportunity to offload his duff wine in a corner of a mixed case? The overpriced non-seller, whose subsequent discount will make a mixed case look more of a bargain? Or the simply shoddy plonk, which a customer might then forgive as one bad bottle out of twelve?

And what the mixed case suggests about the merchant is nothing compared to what it says about the purchaser.

Everything about the mixed case suggests failings. That you are ignorant; you simply don’t know enough about wine to assemble a case yourself that suits you and your lifestyle. You feel some kind of middle-class obligation to have wine in the house, and a mixed case is the easiest way of acquiring a small selection. That you can’t be bothered, to go through a list yourself and select a dozen bottles. Or that you want the scapegoat of a merchant upon whom you can blame any dud bottles which are subsequently mocked by your guests. “Oh, I didn’t choose that one, it came in a mixed case…”

And then there are people who are drawn by price and ostensible savings rather than contents. (No names, hem, hem…) Indeed, for those who don’t give a monkey’s about what they are buying as long as it’s discounted, there are now “mystery cases”, where you don’t actually know which wines you’re getting, just that they’re supposedly a bargain. It’s “a lucky dip you cannot lose”, one merchant says, as if you’re buying your wine at the fairground.

(The latest I was offered was a case for £79.99, “with contents worth at least £94.99, and possibly up to £140.99”. I admire the judicious use there of the word “possibly”…)

Anyway, the point of all this is that, in a moment of desperation, to replenish my depleted cellar with modest degrees of both breadth and expenditure, I succumbed to a mixed case.

My excuse was a lack of time in which to assemble a case of my own; and my reassurance lay in enjoying the mutuality of The Wine Societythat “merchant” which exists solely for its members, and so has no reason to palm anything off.

The Wine Society offer a mixed case of six reds and six whites, all under £6a price threshold so low I’m surprised anything successful apart from a limbo dancer can get under it. 

And yet, unlike CJ, still ploughing his way through a case of rubbishI have found myself drinking eagerly through a variety of consistently interesting and enjoyable wines. I have not encountered a single undrinkable bottle, which, given our success rate at supermarkets for sub-£6 wine, is quite remarkable. Even the inevitable merlot (which one does not “heart” ) was drinkable. No great epiphanic discoveries, but no palate-puckering horrors either.

Given their drinkability and their price, they promote these as wines “to serve without preparation or hesitation”, which is absolutely the case, even if hesitation has never offered any previous hindrance to my consumption.

So this is an exercise I may now try again. Far from feeling diminished, my dignity was restored by my temporarily restocked cellar. With the magisterial stride of the cellar master, I could once again proffer a dry white, a rich red or whatever else supper might require.

And all so that, at 8.30 on Sunday evening, I can offer to nip downstairs and bring up something to drink – and Mrs K can turn from the oven and say, “It’s a pity we haven’t got a bottle of cider to go with this pork…”


Thursday 21 February 2013

Tales of the Occult: 2011 Côtes du Rhône Pt. II

So the stuff I unwisely acquired a couple of weeks ago is still with us. I've worked out that the least worst way to get through a bottle is to open it a day in advance and take the first glassful very cautiously indeed. On this basis I have managed to eliminate a couple from the gaudy heap in the kitchen, only it doesn't seem to matter how many I dispose of, the same number of untouched bottles always seems to remain, lying in wait for me. Either I'm trapped in a tale of the occult, a W. W. Jacobs story, or something by Conan Doyle, or for that matter a variation on The Sorcerer's Apprentice; or it's guerilla warfare, in which the kitchen has become French IndoChina and I am forever swatting back the forces of the Viet Minh only to see them regroup in larger numbers in a slightly different part of the wine rack. It is not a good way to be.

I Google What to do with a lot of really bad wine, which turns up some interesting suggestions. Make casseroles with it is an obvious one, but Turn it into Sangria rings the changes, as does Bathe in it (it's vinotherapy, and keeps your skin supple), Use it as dye (for that artisanal look), Add it to the compost, or Make it into wine jelly. Interesting but somehow not persuasive. And not close enough to just drinking it, which is the circle I want to square. The tragedy (it now appears) is that my filthy CDR is not white. Had it been white, it would at least have allowed me to chuck in some Crème de Cassis or Noix to adulterate the taste and get through it that way.

Sullenly I open a bottle of Minervois, bought from somewhere, a supermarket probably, to take my mind off things. Only to discover that the mainstream Minervois is almost as repulsive as the CDR. Why should this be? But before I have time to query the testimony of my own senses, the ground opens up beneath my feet and Hell gapes as I realise that this is the way the story is unfolding: all my other reds now taste as bad as the CDR and will continue to taste as bad, until I finish off the CDR - which I can never do.

There is only one thing for it: I must give up drinking wine. Given the sort of wine I usually consume, this will, God knows, not be much of a hardship. And to take its place? Whisky, of course. The wife gave up still wines long ago, but loves her Scotch (although not so much her Irish, and not at all her Bourbon) and it has to be said that although we've drunk some fairly shabby whiskies around the world, very few have been too revolting to keep down.

The only one I can recall - in fact, the only whisky which we couldn't stomach in any combination - was some stuff we got in Cairo a few years ago. We kept the bottle as a souvenir. The label - a tantalising knock-off the famous J & B logo - announces the contents as MARCEL A BLWND (sic) OF THE SUPER OLD DRINK EGYPTION, which is not only a Porduct of Egypt but also BRODUSET AND BATTLED BY THE SAMIOS COMPANY. Sadly, Egypt - a miraculous and wonderful country in so many other ways - is not a great whisky-producing nation. Whatever went into the Marcel - grain? grape skins? potatoes? - came out as a kind of marsh gas in thin syrup, undrinkable with still water, fizzy water, or even Coke. Which I suppose is an achievement in its own right.

Marcel aside, I see blue skies and calm seas ahead, in my new whisky-only regime. A nice Speyside for special occasions; a supermarket blend for everyday. Plenty of ice in hot weather, and a mere splash of water in the winter months. Why didn't I think of this before?

Unless, of course, this is just another twist in the plot. Man forswears wine, takes to whisky instead. Whisky slowly begins to taste like Marcel, whatever its provenance. Man moves on to gin, brandy, vodka, beer. They all become undrinkable. Slivovitz, kummel, arrack, rum, mezcal and absinthe all take their turns, every one of them doomed. In desperation, he resorts to tea and coffee, cocoa and even drinking chocolate, sometimes laced with rubbing alcohol, sometimes straight: same result. Soon, tapwater is all that's left, but when he cannot keep that down, he dies of thirst, the last thing he sees being the mocking labels of the oh-so-affordable Côtes du Rhône he acquired at the beginning of the story. Where did he go wrong? Are the gods of wine-drinking punishing him for presuming to get away with a drinkable wine at a bargain price? Was there an essential flaw in his character that led him to his destruction? Could we all learn from this? And was it wise, in the first instance, to get the stuff from an outlet called the Satanic Wine Warehouse?


Thursday 14 February 2013

Not a penny less – please...

Take care of the pennies, they say, and the pounds will take care of themselves. Well, not when it comes to wine.

Down at the bottom of the wine lists, it seems that every bottle is now priced at something +99p. From the murky depths where CJ unearths bottles for £3.99, to the wines for £10.99 and more which I find up at the snorkelling level. And I’m forced to wonder why, in this age of electronic payment, the handing back of a penny in change persists – and whether I would feel better about my wine given a tiny, one penny rise in the price of a bottle, in order to round the prices up.

Some people assume that the reason for such prices is psychological; that we read from left to right, encounter the pounds figure first, and have registered the fact that it’s, say, £7 + something, before we recalculate for the fact that the “something” is actually 99p. In our minds, we still think it’s essentially a £7 bottle, not an £8 one.

But in fact, the origin of such pricing lay in forcing sales assistants to put cash from customers through the tills. By requiring staff to give change on every cash sale, it meant that they had to open the till, recording the transaction, and thereby reducing the opportunities for simply pocketing the customers’ banknotes.

If I had a penny for every time someone had told me that, I’d have…well, I’d certainly have a penny.

Take care of the pennies? Personally, I don’t want to take care of very many of them. A pocketful of pennies won’t even buy you a newspaper; it will just spoil the line and damage the pockets of your suit. And sometimes you can’t even give them away. I saw a chap once try to bestow a handful upon a Mancunian, but the latter was more interested in taking a corner kick at the time.

Be all that as it may; my concern here is with the pennies in the prices of wine. 

Take a posh London wine merchant like Uncorked. Some time ago, I mocked the fact that they were selling a bottle of La Mission Haut Brion for £600.01. I just loved the idea of a City boy thumbing his wad, handing over a dozen £50 notes, and then scrabbling in his pockets for an additional penny. They did apologise, saying it was a computerised price rise error; but the same merchants are currently selling a magnum of Bollinger Rosé NV for £99.99.

Now let’s be honest. If you handed over a brace of fifties for a bottle of Bolly, and got a penny back in change, would you exit the store, whistling gaily at your financial acumen? I think not. 

In fact, I think exactly the opposite – you want to feel, and indeed would probably say to anyone who asked, that this was A Hundred Pound Bottle of Champagne.

There seems to be a point, in most merchants’ lists, at which prices switch, from .95 or .99, to round pounds. That point will differ from merchant to merchant – but that is often also the point, for them and for me, at which wine becomes Fine Wine.

At Majestic, for example, it seems to be £20. Below that, prices range from £4.99 to £19.99; then suddenly, magically, it’s £22, £25 etc. And it works, on susceptible types like me. Immediately, it’s as if the wines have moved out of the bargains, and into a better class.

Because small change has always been a bit…low rent. At the gentlemen’s club Boodle’s until quite recently they used to boil the coins given in change; silver used to be regarded as a notoriously unhygienic metal, due to its more frequent contact with the lower classes. Silver could not be considered as correct tender from one gentleman to another. And supposedly a vestige of this survives when a shop assistant, apologising for giving you change, says “Sorry it’s all silver…”

But St James’s isn’t what it was. Berry Brothers & Rudd, my benchmark for wine poshness, don’t bother with pennies; their wines are priced to the nearest 5p; £7.95 rather than £7.99. But that goes right up to a bottle of L’Ermita 2006, at £427.90. Don’t forget to pick up that 10p change, will you?

And then, insanely, they ask for a few paltry pennies on top of their case prices. So twelve bottles of, say, Calon-Ségur 1996, is £1064.16. That’s well over a thousand pounds… plus 16p. 

And right at the very, very top of their list, they have a case of 6 magnums of La Tâche 1971. £25,000 a bottle (yes CJ, that's twenty-five thousand pounds), a very gentlemanly sum – but, for the case of 6, it’s £134,307…and 36p.

Where is the sophistication in spending the price of a small house on wine, and then quibbling about 36p? A bag of crisps with your drink, sir?

But we no longer live in a gentlemanly age. Wine prices, with their percentages of Duty, VAT and margin, are presumably calculated by computer, resulting in the absurdities above. And we invariably pay by card, where tapping in four digits, be they 1499 or 1500, has none of the physical aspects of coins versus notes.

Nevertheless, I would feel less of a bargain hunter, and more of a gentleman, if that single penny were added to the price of a bottle. A fifteen pound bottle of claret has more ring to it than one at £14.99. Whether or not it tastes like a Fine Wine, it feels more like one.

I would like A Hundred Pound Bottle of Champagne, please.

And not a penny less.


Thursday 7 February 2013

Open All Hours - 2011 Côtes du Rhône

So my Brother-in-Law is set to go on one of his cross-Channel dashes in search of drink, and very kindly asks if he can get anything for me while he's there. There being The Calais Wine Superstore, chosen by him not least because it is strong on New World wines, his kind of wine, and also because they have given him a free ferry ticket for himself, his partner, and his car. If there is the tiniest inconvenience in this deal, it is merely that he has to go in mid-January, and a Severe Gale Force 9 is forecast.

The only other inconvenience, or at least it would be an inconvenience to me, is having to work out how much drink to buy in order to maximise the differential in duty between French and English prices, as well as make enough of a turn on it to cover the cost of the petrol. But this is easy for him, because he is a financial wizard, such a wizard that he actually aims to save about £300 net by getting his drink this way. 

Off he goes in the severe gale, but both he and P&O are made of the right stuff, and the Force 9 blows but fruitlessly, and he returns with the booze and his partner and the car headlights pointing at forty-five degrees up into the night sky on account of the incredible quantity of drink in the back.

And what has he bought on my behalf? Well, I had a quick scan of the Calais WIne website before he left and succumbed to the old old tendency: in other words, I dived straight to the bottom as if I was trying to salvage a Mediterranean wreck, and found this generic 2011Côtes du Rhône going for an eye-wateringly sensible £2.69 a bottle. Usual cockamamy reasoning: at this price, it doesn't matter what it tastes like. I'm the only one drinking it. If it doesn't kill me, I'm ahead of the game. I can always use it for fence paint.

Get me some of that, I said. My Bro-in-Law thought he could squeeze in half a case.

Now, as it turns out, he has been able to squeeze in a whole case, which is extremely decent of him, only for me, alarm bells are starting to ring. It is not exactly a question of retrospectively being careful what you wish for, but something like that. Six bottles of poisonous crap I can deal with, if indeed it turns out to be poisonous crap. Twelve bottles, on the other hand, are a bit more of a burden, a bit more difficult to get rid of, even if they do cost the same as a single bottle of good wine, even if they cost virtually nothing. How many chicken stews will twelve bottles make? How many marinades? How many solitary tussles with my liver will I have to endure? The stuff will be hanging around forever, like a curse.

Still. It comes in a nice bottle with a cork, and certainly looks the part. In fact it looks almost as good as a 2007 Saint-Émilion Grand Cru which I drank last week (not at all bad, suave but a bit one note, a bit George Sanders) or a 2009 Crozes Hermitage, also drunk last week (not bad either, a bit more frantic but still one note, kind of Al Pacino), so that's promising. And the cork comes out okay, too, not something you can always take for granted at this level.

The taste, though, the taste. Straight off the bat, there seems to be no nose, and no finish. In the middle, however, there's a disturbing amount of action, involving a tangled blackberry sensation, some sandpaper, and most worrying, an invisible chemical gas I can't put a name to, the kind of smell that comes out of a car body shop or the duty-free section of an airport in the tropics. I start to fret that it, whatever it is, might blind me or cause irreversible brain damage. I am, frankly, scared. So I cork the bottle up again and leave it for a good six hours.

By evening, it's calmed down enough to drink without hurting, and, paired with some really aggressive Italian cheese, it could almost be wine, with a personality oscillating wildly between Sid James and Rutger Hauer. And in the morning, I feel no lingering effects beyond the usual ones of age and alcohol. So I think we can get through this. The lesson learned, being to let the stuff breathe for about half a day before drinking. And keep the windows open. And probably not attempt more than one bottle a month. And choose more wisely the next time someone offers a helping hand. And, now I think about it, I might as well update my will, just in case.


PS: Two weeks later, CJ is still trying to get through the wretched stuff: