Thursday 25 April 2013

The worst wine I have ever drunk – Leyda Reserva Syrah 2011

I am aware of King Lear’s statement, that "The worst is not, So long as we can say, 'This is the worst' ". Nevertheless. This is the worst wine I have ever drunk.

It started, like so many things in life, well enough. I got an e-mail from a merchant about Leyda Reserva Syrah 2011, which declared, “It has attracted wildly enthusiastic journalistic praise...   at the price it seemed almost too good to be true.” 
That price was £8.75 a bottle.

But I happened to know that it was on offer at Majestic, not only for less, but with a further temporary reduction because it came from Chile. So, of course, I bought some, with an unattractive feeling of smugness at having somehow outsmarted someone.

Now, I must confess to a growing disillusionment with Majestic. It’s become so big that the bulk in which they have to buy in order to supply every branch seems to mitigate against the little, quirky discovery. The piled boxes begin to have the feel of a calculated marketing gimmick, rather than an illustration of their lack of frippery.

And we all now realise that the actual price of a wine is the reduced, “buy two” price. Less, of course, those cyclical geographic discounts – 20% off all Chilean wine that particular month, because… well, because it’s Chile’s turn. The following month it’s somewhere else. Anyone who pays the full, single bottle price is a mug. But I, I had my bargain…

And then, one Saturday night, I tasted the wine.

How low can one sink? Well, the bar on Sediment has always been set lower than a dachsund’s undercarriage.

But this has a taste I can only describe as reminiscent of the disinterred. I have known it said of wines that they have something of the farmyard about them; here, that something is silage.

It is absurdly, intensely blackcurrant, with this pervasive rotting taste and odour. Oh, and it has the consistency of catarrh.

It was repellent. I put it on a shelf and, like a Porton Down chemist who has inadvertently opened the world’s last vial of smallpox, pondered what to do with it now.

Throwing it away was like an admission of defeat. Returning to it had the threat level of returning to a lit firework. I can’t imagine what you might cook with it that could possibly balance its flavour – andouilette, perhaps?

I supposed I could drive back to Majestic and return it, but I worry that they’re going to make an issue out of it, and claim that it’s just my opinion against theirs. “And look at it this way, sir – who drinks the most wine, us or you?,” a discussion in which my wife might get involved.

So a week later, summoning my courage, I open the second bottle. (Because of course, to get the Majestic discount, I had to buy two…) It was marginally more drinkable than the first, ie I could actually drink it; but that may have been because my palate was clenched in anticipation, like a boxer expecting a punch. Essentially, bottle #2 established the fact that bottle #1 had not just been spoiled. The foulness was a characteristic of the wine.

I have now discovered that I am not alone in this judgment. Perhaps not surprisingly, the word “foul” is absent from Majestic’s own description. But a selection of words which feature in their customers’ reviews include “dreadful”, “nasty” and “medicinal”.

One customer gave it one star out of five, only because the Majestic system doesn’t allow you to award zero. I even put in my own, one star review, just to reinforce the position.

So how, then, do Majestic arrive at a rating of 3.5 stars?

I’m just an O Level mathematician, but it appears to me that from a total of 7 published customer reviews, this wine has achieved a total of 14 stars. My pygmy brain suggests that is an average of 2 stars. Not, as the Majestic site has been displaying, an average rating of 3.5 stars. This is clearly a 40% failure of a wine, not a 70% success.

And if half of your customers report that a wine is “nasty”, “dreadful”, “appalling” and “strange”, surely it merits a better response than simply fixing the star rating? Or is this why “This product is not currently available” from the Majestic website?

Never mind. Just think yourselves lucky.


Thursday 18 April 2013

Simpler Things - Waitrose Grenache

So in a fit of helpless nostalgia-seeking, I find a pile of colour magazines from the early 1970s and churn through them looking for whatever past I think I might have to thank for my current condition. The contents are intrinsically complex, the early decade riddled with a nostalgia of its own as the bright promise of the 1960s turns out to be a bit crappier than anyone had anticipated, leading to an enthusiastic rediscovery of earlier styles (Victoriana, Deco, nineteenth-century sideburns, Regency high-waisted skirts) to take away the taste of the present.

But also much simpler, in that the hydra-headed monster of consumer choice is still relatively under control: which means that the stuff in the adverts between the articles, the stuff you can buy with your rapidly depreciating currency (inflation hovering around 10% per annum in the UK, rocketing to over 24% in '75) enjoys a much reduced taxonomic range, and doesn't have much going for it when you do buy it. A trawl through the ads is therefore blissfully underwhelming. A new Ford Granada gives you a push-button radio with speakers front and rear! Warerite offers a better range of standard sheet sizes than any other laminate manufacturer! And if you want some wine with your food? Blue Nun, from Sichel: Right through the meal. Not just one less thing to worry about, twenty less things. Forty!

If Blue Nun doesn't do it for you, Deinhard Green Label ('A crisp, refreshing wine characteristic of the finest Moselles') should provide adequate cover, as will Goldener Oktober ('Cool, clear, light-hearted'), or Deinhard Hanns Christof ('A smooth, well-balanced hock'), or, for red, Bull's Blood ('Full-bodied'), or for sparkling, Asti Martini ('A wine with finesse and perfect balance'), or, indeed, Marimont ('The light, delicate, sparkling wine from France'), at a very reasonable £1.20 a bottle. Top and tail it with a Harvey's Bristol Cream ('The best sherry in the world'); and a Cockburn's Special Reserve ('A very fine bottle of port') and you're away. Quite apart from which, you're probably smoking so much (did everyone smoke in 1973? Judging by the pictures, then, yes), any subtleties in the drink are going to be as evanescent as starlight reflected in a puddle. Life couldn't be simpler.

Except: a little cloud, like a man's hand, in the form of an advert from Mary Quant - of all people, the famous fashion designer - who, in 1974, is running her own wine import business, Mary Quant (Wine Shippers) of Chelsea. And she is going to shatter the conventions of mainstream English wine drinking by bringing us a properly-sourced Côtes du Rhône, a respectable Blanc de Blancs and (something for the ladies, no doubt) a Bordeaux Demi-Sec, all on mail order. 'Appellation Contrôlée wine for around £1 a bottle,' she announces, and while part of me leaps up at the chance to get away from the Deinhard Hanns Christof being boosted as if it were a '49 Margaux, the rest of me sees, for all Ms. Quant's admirable high-mindedness, the dawn of the beginning of the Modern Age, with its domesticated wine snobbery, its specialisms, its drudgery of choice.

The nostalgia trail ends here, in fact, with Mary Quant, not least because of what I am about to drink when I finally put away this stash of yellowing old colour supplements and fashion magazines: some of that Waitrose Grenache which I originally bought to try and tame my deadly CDR. Why have I bought more of the stuff? It's not bad, a nice mix of, frankly, fresh squid and fireworks in the nose - and close enough to the psycho CDR to suggest that the CDR was mostly Grenache, but without quite that CDR's desire to inflict harm - but it's not that great. I must have bought it on muscle memory or some similar low-level autonomic impulse. It's slightly miraculous, I suppose, that I can get such a wine on impulse, in suburban London, in the first place. But am I getting any more real pleasure, real quality-of-life pleasure, than if I were necking a bottle of Goldener Oktober and considering myself rather a swell for doing so? Exactly.

And if that makes me sound like an old man who yearns to grow a pair of scimitar-shaped sideburns and drive around in a Ford Granada with a beige vinyl roof while smoking a Rothmans King Size, well, I'm not going to say it ain't so.


Thursday 11 April 2013

Wine – delivered into mine hand

This wine delivery business – it’s such a palaver

Oh, they make it sound easy. Give your address, name the day, pick your time. But it’s so much more complicated than that.

At one time, when I worked in an office, I would have my wine delivered there. Its clanking announced its contents to all and sundry across the open-plan, and no doubt other employees thought this was evidence of a profligate lifestyle typical of senior management. 

I’m luckier now, as I often work from home. But it’s only a marginal improvement to have a delivery van arrive outside one’s house, proclaiming its provenance in its paintwork. Every curtain-twitcher in the street can see you’re having a load of wine delivered, and can assemble their own little bundle of judgments as to your wealth, lifestyle and alcohol consumption.

(Later confirmed, of course, by examination of your recycling box…)

However, I can now theoretically name a day and pick a time when I will be home. And, significantly, when Mrs K will be out. So as not to trouble, unnecessarily, her concerns about infelicitous expenditure, and overindulgent consumption. The wine can then be spirited into the cellar, where its presence will not be detected amongst the bottles which are Not To Be Touched.

I have now had experience of completing several sets of merchants’ instructions for wine deliveries. Sometimes they make supposedly helpful suggestions, like “Is there a shed or garage where we could leave it if you are out?” No, there is not – because if the shed or garage had open access for deliveries, I would not be spending my money on wine, but on replacing all of my stolen tools.

Some also offer a two-and-a-half hour window during which the delivery should occur. This is all well and good, but at some point during that time I am going to have to visit the lavatory. Dare I? The last time I tried it, no sooner had business commenced than the doorbell rang. I had to yell loudly enough to be heard down on the pavement that “I’m in the toilet!”, an announcement both surprising and unnecessarily informative to several passers-by and next-door’s nanny.

This time, I was sent a very nice text, to tell me that my wine would arrive between 12 and 2.30pm.

At 11.15, the doorbell rang.

There outside the house is the emblazoned van, informing the neighbours that my consumption is now so great I must have wine delivered a dozen bottles at a time. And there inside the house is Mrs K, still working in her study.

Here’s a word of advice for couriers. Wine is like a baby – better delivered when due.

Fortunately, I was not in the toilet. Also fortunately, I was closer to the front door than Mrs K.

Speed was of the essence. “Anything to sign?” I ask brusquely, anticipating one of those ridiculous handheld electronic devices they ask you to “sign” with a stylus. (Few of us have experience of writing on glass, apart from the “yoot” who etch tags on to bus windows, and they are more likely to be recipients of a custodial sentence than a wine delivery.)

“Just this piece of paper. They asked me to have one of those electronic things, and I said, ‘How’d you expect me to hold that and a case of wine?’” 

Well, let’s not get into that on my doorstep right now, thank you very much. Last month we had 15 metres of skirting board delivered, and that chap managed it, but frankly I just want to get this case inside and downstairs, before…

“Is that something for me?” Mrs K’s dulcet tones precede her steps downstairs. I am caught in the hallway, case in hands, like a dog with a string of sausages.


“That box.”

I think I would be pushing my luck were I to retort, “What box?”

“Ah. No. It’s just, er, a case of wine actually…”

“Oh! A case of wine. A case.” 

This emphasis does not mean that she suffers any category confusion about the actual concept of a case of wine. No; it is to convey that to her, “case” suggests a suspect level of both consumption and expenditure.

Fortunately, my salvation is staring me in the face – almost literally, since I still have a case of wine clutched to my chest. On the top of the box is a sticker. In most cases, I would be embarrassed by it, since obviously I aspire to be the kind of person whose cases are labelled something like “12 x Latour”. However, this one reads “Under £6 Reds”.

I gesture towards it with my chin. Mrs K observes, then moves on, with a departing, descending “Hmmm…” which, roughly translated, means “Alright this time…”. 

I take the case downstairs, and stash my embarrassingly cheap bottles away. But I wonder:

Why not save us all a load of trouble, and put those stickers on every case…?


Thursday 4 April 2013

Spanish Surreal. Some Pedro Ximinez.

So PK and I are at this Spanish Wine Trade Fair in the old Billingsgate Fish Market in the City of London, and it occurs to me that of all the major wine-producing regions, including Australia and the whole of the Americas, Spain is the one on which I have the slenderest intellectual purchase. This takes some doing, obviously, and even I am slightly surprised by my troglodytic ignorance of the wines of Spain. Still. This is one reason why PK and I have made the trip down to the City; to learn.

Of course, being in the company of PK I am likely to learn less, rather than more, on account of the level of discourse in which we habitually engage.

'I went for a 5 k run this morning,' PK says, looking pleased with himself. 'I can show you the route I took. My iPhone plotted it.'
'I've never been here before,' I say, looking at the old Billingsgate Fish Market building, now an all-purpose split-level venue, but still with a pair of fabulous gilded fish weathervanes on the roof. 'When's lunch?'
'I wonder if they'll have that Pedro Ximinez stuff I had at my birthday dinner?' PK asks. 'You remember that stuff? It was like liquid Christmas Pudding.'
'You're always talking about liquid Christmas Pudding. Everything is liquid Christmas Pudding to you.'

Lunch is pretty good by Trade Fair standards, with some flavoursome ham buns and pungent cheeses. So far, neither PK nor I have actually tasted any of the Trade Fair wines, but we do make liberal use of the lunchtime bar, while PK shows me the route he took on his 5 kilometre run.

'Then you get Paula Radcliffe's voice telling you how well you've done.'

At last we re-emerge onto the Trade Fair main floor, and look around. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of different wines. Or the same wines, with different packagings. There are definitely hundreds of different packagings. The only Spanish wine I can think of is Rioja. There are scores of differently-packaged Riojas. What the rest are, I have no idea.

Some of the bottles have traditional paper labels with a drypoint of the winery and a date. Many more have multicoloured polka dots, wavy lines, stylised representations of trees and undergrowth, chic little retro cartoons of swinging couples enjoying a bottle of (invariably white) wine together. Some have candystripe vertical bars like a test card. Some have sepia photographs of incredibly grizzled Spanish estate workers pulling faces. One has a Roy Lichtenstein pulp comic image and is called Crash. Another is covered in pictures of door keys.

'I like the keys,' I say to the woman who is in charge of the keys wine.
'We have already won two design awards for our keys,' she says.

I have an idea.

'Spain,' I say, wisely, to PK, 'is the true birthplace of Surrealism. From Cervantes to Goya to Miró to Dalí. That's what this is all about. There are nods to the Freudian subconscious. There is visual playfulness. There is disorientating abstraction. It's all about the labels.'

I am so impressed by the incredible diversity of the labelling, I get out my phone and start taking pictures.

'God, I feel tired,' PK suddenly announces. 'I wish I hadn't gone for that run, now. I feel really tired. I don't think I can get round this. What's the time?'

But the wines. I know that we found the Pedro Ximinez stand, because PK grabbed my arm and told me it tasted like liquid Christmas Pudding, not my arm, the Pedro Ximinez. Other than that?

'Just a couple more pictures,' I say, photographing the bottle covered in door keys.
'Are you wine writers?' the woman behind the table asks, suspiciously.

Another five minutes and I have enough wobbly, out-of-focus shots to keep me happy.

'I've got to go on to a reception now,' PK says, haggardly.

When I get home, I cannot remember anything about the wines I tried at the Trade Fair, or, indeed, if I managed to try any at all. Nonetheless I carefully download all the photographs. Some of them are almost intelligible. Then, just as as carefully, I delete every single one of them, imagining that I'm backing them up. I spend half an hour trying to retrieve them. No success. So now I have no memory of the wines, no record of the event. Everything has vanished. I am precisely back where I started.

'Surreal,' I say to myself.