Thursday 28 March 2013

I've started – but will I finish?

How have I managed to end up with five half-finished bottles of wine dotted about my abode?

They are piling up, in the manner of half-read books, which might or might not get finished. Like half-used pots of paint, which might or might not get used. I haven’t finished the last one, but I’ve started a new one – in the way that one used to have an increasing stack of half-recorded VCR cassettes.

Pumped out beneath their Vac-U-Vin bungs, they sit around, slowly deteriorating, like their owner. And if I’m going to be spotted by Mrs K opening a sixth, I had better have a damned good explanation.

So let me explain.

Bottle One. This was the bog-standard bottle of red which I opened several days ago, to accompany an equally bog-standard supper. The description “bog-standard” is not necessarily critical; it simply means that I cooked it (not Mrs K), and for myself alone (not Mrs K), and so the cooking techniques employed are likely to be less sous-vide, more boil-in-bag. Nor are my “bog-standard” dishes likely to be found in most pairing notes, which seem more interested in ocelot and abalone than toad-in-the-hole. So a “bog-standard” bottle of red then, half of which nicely accompanied a solo supper.

Two. The bottle of white which I had to open the following night, because we were eating fish. Obviously I can’t expect our suppers to be dictated by the bottle of wine I happened to open the night before – can I? Our supper cuisine veers across the globe like the Olympic opening parade (“Iraq!...Ireland!…Israel!…Italy!…”) Yet some aspects of our household diet, like the relentless presence of varieties of green vegetables, remain as repetitive as a Steve Reich composition. If we similarly narrowed our diet down to variations on red meat alone, it would make my wine selection 50% easier. 

But no; like a recalcitrant schoolboy, I accept the need to rotate fish, fowl and indeed neither. The previous night’s red was put on hold, rather than smother a nice piece of hake beneath a duvet of Monastrell. So there’s now an unfinished bottle of white as well.

Three. This is the Shiraz which tasted so unbelievably foul that I couldn’t get beyond the first mouthful. Generously, I assume that it was corked or something, and not that there was a carcass in the fermentation plant. Having bought this bottle from Majestic, I of course have a second bottle of the stuff, being the only way of getting it at the reduced (ie proper) price. So I thought somehow that I would keep this one to see if the second was as bad. If it was, then I would take both of them back. But because the first bottle was so vile, I haven’t had the nerve to open and taste the second yet. So the first is just festering there, like gangrene in a bottle.

Four. This was the rather nice red I once planned to write about. The problem is, it was so nice that Mrs K and I between us polished off, ooh, three-quarters of the bottle – and a quarter of a bottle is nowhere near sufficient to go with a meal. Even if I bring it out with the line, “You’re not drinking tonight, are you?” – always a dangerous gambit – there won’t even be enough for me alone. There’s an argument that a small glass of really nice wine can  cause more mental anguish than half a bottle of bad.

So basically, bottle four is waiting in case I get round to writing about it, following an occasion on which I am drinking at home alone, and willing to settle for just one smallish glass of wine. Which isn’t really going to happen…

Five. This is half a bottle of dessert wine – because, with the best will in the world (and that was mine), the guests at my birthday dinner who were not driving and who were still drinking by the time of the dessert only consumed the other half a bottle of dessert wine between them. 

It would be preposterous to start drinking dessert wine each evening with the kind of plebian puddings which emerge from our freezer. Mrs K rarely eats desserts, so I am left alone with various paltry combinations of ice cream, yogurt, fruit and nuts; none of which remotely justify the quality, cost, or indeed the risk of a flooded suitcase, attached to a Pedro Ximenez I determinedly brought back in my luggage from Seville. So there it sits, awaiting another grand occasion with guests. By which time it will probably be undrinkable…

Six. This is the red I just opened to have with supper. Because bottle 1) is now so old, it’s better left for cooking; 2) is white, and is also now so old it’s better left for cooking; 3) is undrinkable; 4) doesn’t quite have enough in it for a meal; and 5) is only for grand desserts. 

Inevitably, we will only drink half of bottle 6. 

So tomorrow will find me plaintively wailing: why have I got six half-finished bottles of wine in my abode?


Thursday 21 March 2013

Great Wine Moments In Movie History IV: Babette's Feast - Clos Vougeot

Keen cineastes will have noticed the 25th anniversary cinema re-issue of Babette's Feast at the end of last year: winner of the 1987 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Babette, as it turns out, is also the perfect Christmas movie, on account of its bleakly puritannical first seventy-five minutes being followed by a twenty-five minute conclusion of such sumptuous generosity that you can't help but come out of the movie house feeling better about yourself and indeed, the rest of mankind.

The tale is simple: a Parisian masterchef - the eponymous
Babette - having fled the chaos of Paris after the Franco-Prussian War, finds herself a refugee in Jutland of all places, among a small coastal community of impossibly pious and self-denying Danes. Unlike the voluptuous French for whom she has been catering all her life, these live on prayer, fresh water, mortification of the flesh and salted fish. They all seem to be about eighty years old. Full of Christian charity, they take her in.

Time passes. She toils among the seaweed and ludfisk. And then - and I don't think I'm giving too much away, here - Babette comes into a small fortune. Salvation: she can at last afford to leave Jutland and the muttering Danes, and return to a more congenial environment. But does she? No, in a spirit of love and gratitude she prepares the pinched little community the most delicious and extravagant meal it has ever eaten. Which also means wine, a commodity they normally avoid - a fine amontillado to go with the turtle soup, and then, famously, an 1860 Veuve Clicquot and an 1845 Clos Vougeot. By the end, a quiet ecstasy has overcome the oldsters, and they stream out into the night, beneath the diamond canopy of Heaven. And Babette has spent every last sou of her fortune.

Obviously, it's all in the telling. One stroke of genius was to cast Stéphane Audran as Babette. I don't want to get into a debate, right now, about who was the greatest French screen goddess (Bardot? Deneuve? Arletty? Isabelle Huppert?) but Audran is definitely among them. And perfect for Babette - beautiful, austere and proudly sensual. Cunningly enough, her genius as a cook is given full and disinterested recognition in the mouth of one of the more unlikely guests at the feast, a Swedish General who not only knows his way around the table, but around the wine cellar as well. High comedy ensues as he tucks, bewildered, into his Blinis Demidoff and his Caille en Sarcophage, wondering how a bunch of hayseeds can have magicked up such an incredible meal.

The setting, too, is perfectly realised. Karen Blixen's orginal story, Babettes Gaestebud, was set in Norway. But when the film's director, Gabriel Axel, went in search of locations, he found Norway too picturesque to sustain the note of spartan perversity that he wanted to evoke. So he came home to Jutland, whose western edge was quite horrible enough for his purposes. He had a fake late-nineteenth century coastal village thrown up amid the sand dunes - bleak and inhospitable as a bus stop in North Shields - and started filming. And the food: it appears as a genuine epiphany, spiritual and physical at the same time, created with devotion, consumed reverently, a kind of miracle; which, in the late nineteenth century, the greatest cooking probably was, probably in a way we don't understand any more. The booze, too: when the Swedish General realises that he's drinking a forty-year-old Clos Vougeot, you gasp with him, so intense is the moment.

Like any good film, it throws up more questions than answers. Is the whole event a critique of the futile spirituality of the Danish believers? Is Babette's sacrifice of her wealth a necessary atonement for a life spent in the service of a superevolved hedonism? Is the film humanist or quietly theist? Is it an incredibly roundabout way of hymning the pleasures of a really good dinner? Is it, even, about the wine, without which all the rest is necessary but not sufficient?

To be honest, when I saw the film back in the Eighties, once the glow of the fabulous Ms. Audran had worn off a bit, the thing I couldn't get out of my mind was the Clos Vougeot, and the supressed rapture with which the General pronounces that name. Clos Vougeot: just saying it is luxurious. At the time, I'd never heard of the stuff. Years later, I actually had some in a poncy restaurant somewhere in London. I can't really remember what it tasted like; but I think it must have been good. Or was that the movie talking?


Thursday 14 March 2013

Artifice v Artisan - the two faces of one Rioja

It is hard enough deciding which wine to buy. It is important to stand in front of the shelves and appear suave and knowing, and not baffled by the varieties and prices like a schoolboy faced with a complicated range of condoms.

In general, I have think I have mastered the required image of sagacity. And then, I find myself faced with the situation I have captured here. On the left, we have Coto de Imaz Rioja, Reserva 2005. And on the right, Coto de Imaz Rioja, Reserva 2005.

I think we can agree, without the intervention of forensics, that there are certain differences between these two adjacent bottles. An ordinary customer, their eyes fleeting nervously along the shelves, fearful of confusing the Rhine and the Rhone, might think these are two completely different wines. A wine-buff might anticipate some kind of arcane distinction, as between vintage and late-bottled vintage port. But no – they are exactly the same wine. They are both Coto de Imaz Rioja, Reserva 2005.

For ease of identification, let’s call them the one on the left, and the one on the right.

Someone, probably wearing challenging spectacles, has clearly told El Coto de Rioja that they need to rebrand.  Their label needed to resemanticise its juxtapository elements to reengage the target cohort. Or somesuch.

Change the label! What, in time for the next vintage? No, right now. In the middle of a year? Just swap it over. No-one will ever see them together…

(There is probably some poor teenage shelf-stacker, still as confused at the order to put two visibly different bottles together on the shelves as I am to see them there.)

Now, people tell me that you’re not supposed to choose your wine on the basis of the label. I know that. But…what if you have no choice? If the same wine has two labels? You have to choose on the basis of the label.

Oh, it doesn’t matter, they’ll say. It’s the same wine. It doesn’t matter. Well clearly it does, otherwise they wouldn’t have changed it. It clearly matters to someone at El Coto de Rioja. And it matters to me. Because I don’t know which one to buy.

Are they really going to taste the same? The one on the left declares on the back that “long ageing in oak casks has provided this wine with great complexity and potential”, a clear and appealing statement. 

But the one on the right says that “long maceraction (sic) times have provided it with a stable and powerful tannic structure. Its long ageing in American oak cask (sic again) has developed it to stand a long ageing in bottle and to assure a succesful evolution (all, sadly, sic).”

There’s something endearingly authentic about that clumsy translation, as if Manuel, prior to his job at Fawlty Towers, were working in the labelling department. “Is OK, Senor, I speak English well. I learn it from a book.

“I write label.”

And the one on the right just feels more genuine. The clumsy translation, the hand-drawn type, the shadowy woodcut…probably all similarly created in an earlier, Don Draper era of marketing, when it wasn’t the spectacles which were challenging but the tobacco consumption. But nevertheless, much more redolent of “el Siglo XVI” of which they boast on the label.

The one on the left is just knee-jerk upmarket, its polished look and language intended for the modern global market. The crisp edges and proper serifs of a digital typeface, the touches of gold foil (as opposed to gold-ish colour), the image of a winery where they have improved the weather, trimmed the shrubbery and shifted the boulders from the foreground.

It’s a shiny international construct, seemingly drawn from the design of cigarette packets.

Ironically, heritage and authenticity are some of the most desirable things in markets right now.  The last thing most people want is to feel that a product has just been created, designed to chase the glossy money of oligarchs and oilmen, the banker’s bonus and the hedgie’s wedge. Artisan is a good word – artifice is not.

So waiting just around the corner will be another marketing chap, in his Carhartt jacket, Sunspel underwear and Woolrich shirt. And he’s going to say to Coto de Rioja, look at this wonderful old bottle I saw…it’s so authentic

Of course, I bought the one on the right. I’m a sucker for authenticity. Even if it’s fake.

And what does it taste like? Well…the same as the one on the left.


Thursday 7 March 2013

Alternative Endings: 2011 Côtes du Rhône Pt. III

So the Côtes du Rhône is still here, although things have moved on in the last fortnight. First, I have managed to offload a bit by covertly dishing it up to people seated at our kitchen table (we don't have guests like PK, just people who turn up and consume; the last one stayed eight hours, polishing off a full lunch and a light supper) and feigning ignorance when they notice how horrible their wine is.

Secondly, readers of Sediment have pitched in with advice as to how to get through the stuff unharmed. Aodan Peacock recalled his grandfather - in South Australia, some decades ago - blending 'Various varieties for better balance. Sweet Syrah is cheap and can "fix" thin Pinot. Bitter tannins can be eased with Merlot.' While admitting that 'It's not always succesful', at least 'We've had some acceptable outcomes.' I tucked this behind my ear for later, at the same time concurring with Anonymous who reminded me that 'Mulled wine tastes filthy, so it doesn't matter what you make it with', while respectfully noting the opinion of another Anonymous, whose father had a penchant for what he called 'Tank car wine', and whose trick with this terrible grog was to 'Dilute with water or ginger ale and drink with food.' Simon Tanner thought that I was being excessively faint-hearted about the Crème de Cassis and reckoned I should 'Chuck it in ANYWAY... you'd be hard pushed to make the stuff worse than it already is, but you might just end up with something that tastes like a slightly sweet version of a New World cabernet blend.' Deborah (no surname) pointed out that I should 'Take a bottle each time you go to a party or larger gathering where it can get lost among the other wines and nobody knows who brought it', which is of course one of most practical solutions; while LondonPerson went off at a tangent over the Egyptian whisky, revealing, frighteningly, that 'Knockoffs and Zibib liquors can be made by mixing cheap sugars, corn or pomace with yeast, extracting the alcohol with a little pressure cooker, and then filtering it through a T-shirt or cloth.' And a mate of mine rang up even more tangentially to suggest that I should try mixing port and Guinness as a kind of all-purpose wholly corrupted alcoholic drink which will serve in any situation.

If there was a theme emerging, it involved admixture. As chance would have it, I was admixing only the other weekend at a birthday party. It was late and - speaking candidly - we were all slightly the worse for wear, when someone said, Let's put the Sauternes in the Champagne and see what happens. So we did, about half and half, drank it and, so relaxed were we, we pronounced it good. Sweet, effervescent, an aesthete's version of Red Bull. In retrospect it was disgusting, but at the time the mood carried us over. At any rate, mixing was on my mind.

To warm up, I actually did the port and Guinness thing: not as bad as I'd feared, a bit like an old-fashioned porter rather than an extra stout, and with a delightful pinkish blush on the head. On the other hand, it wasn't so nice that I'd ever want to drink it again, so I moved on to the CDR. PK's argument was that, since the CDR was probably Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre in some combination, + or - and/or, I should get a reasonable bottle of one of these and chuck it in to improve the blend. Ten minutes of deliberation at Waitrose saw me emerge with a Grenache costing almost three times as much as the original CDR, and wondering, actually, shouldn't I have got a Syrah (there was no Mourvèdre on its own) given that the CDR was probably quite Grenache-packed already, and I might just be compounding the felony? Or better yet, a quite unrelated wine, a Merlot, maybe, just for the taste, and forget about following the recipe?

Too late. I mixed the CDR in with the allegedly decent Grenache, a ratio of about two to one. Took a swig. The same chemical haze, finish a bit like barbecue lighter fluid, slightly less psychotic in the middle, but not really an improvement. I tried the Grenache on its own, just to make sure: started well, spicy, hint of chocolate, followed by a so-so middle and an industrial conclusion. Then I went back to the CDR: still appalling. Months of trial and error would probably have yielded a better result, but as a one-off experiment, it was inconclusive; added to which, jumbling up Guinness, port and bargain Côtes du Rhône, is, frankly, a hangover in a bucket, and not a good idea. 

It was only later, mildly detoxed, when I discovered a bottle of The Wine Society's White Burgundy, and absently took a sip, that I realised how Fate operates: disillusioned by my experiments in blending and depressed by my immovable CDR, I'd resigned myself once again to life as a third-rate wine drinker - only to find that my glass contained something fragrant, buttery, shapely, really delicious. There was drinkable wine in the world, and I had some. I practically cried with gratitude.