Thursday 30 May 2013

Celebrity Drinking: Francis Coppola Blue Label Merlot/ Barefoot Merlot

So a friend of mine - the one who had the harebrained scheme for driving wine all over the country, as it happens - says he's found an empty bottle of Francis Coppola's wine in his house. It's a 2006 Merlot, which he has no recollection of drinking, although he presumes it was a pretty fair swill, as it was given to him by someone with a keen interest in wine, and, possibly also, was to make amends for some shambles engineered by that same wine enthusiast on a previous occasion - a moral debt which always ups the chances of the gifted drink being of reasonable quality.

He shows me the bottle, which I handle reverently, even though there's nothing in it. Why am I so respectful? The label is neither here nor there, and I don't even like Californian wines - all that heft, that 'Fruit Bomb' crap, as suave as an episode of Wacky Races. It's got to be down to the fact that Francis Ford Coppola has directed at least three imperishably great movies - The Godfather, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now - and therefore enjoys, in my head at least, the kind of status that makes anything he touches of interest, even a Sonoma Valley red, even a berkish one-size-fits-all Merlot varietal.

One might, of course, make the same pathetic fan's-eye-view observation of Paul Newman's salad dressings, or Marky Ramone's pasta sauce - except for the fact that Coppola enjoys a couple of key advantages in the celebrity food & drink business: his products are award-winning wines, and therefore classy; and he is actually involved in their production, rather than simply allowing his name to be slapped on the label, as in the case of Sylvester Stallone's High Protein Pudding, Whitesnake's slightly incredible Zinfandel, or Smokey Robinson's Gumbo. Indeed, only Cliff Richard's Vida Nova wines (at one point the fastest selling wine Tesco has ever stocked) come close for authenticity and sheer frisson. Oh, and I've even seen Coppola's Zoetrope HQ in San Francisco, located in the iconic Sentinel Building, thereby affording me an extra bond of intimacy - although at no point did I go into the downstairs café for a Muffaletta and a taste of Director's Cut Pinot Noir at $11 a glass, for obvious reasons.

The only problem is that I am now sitting and staring at an entirely empty bottle of Coppola Merlot, stirred both by a hunger to experience the thrill of celebrity contact at several removes; and to remind myself (if indeed I ever knew) what a Sonoma red tastes like. So I trudge down to the supermarket, hoping against hope to find something approximating to a West Coast Merlot; or with Cliff Richard's name on it.

To my amazement, I do: a Barefoot Merlot (£6.99 at Waitrose), Gold Medal winner at the 2011 Critics' Challenge Wine Competition, which I carry home like a school prize, and whose screw top I then dispatch with a practised flourish.

Not bad. A bit heavy on the blackberries and chesty velvety stuff, more like eating a sexy chocolate bar than drinking wine, but on the other hand, some nice acidity, an entertainingly protracted fruit crumble finish, and mercifully only 13%, as opposed to the 15% horrors I have tangled with in the past. And here's a thing: if I was the sort of person who (like PK) frets about appearances, I could decant this stuff into the Coppola bottle and pass it off. After all, the Coppola wine gets some very mixed online punters' reviews ('Mildly disappointing'; 'Much better out there for half the price') and this Barefoot stuff, although ultimately a bit sticky, does the job. By God, I'm tempted. I could commit the imposture, then rub my hands together and cackle like Dick Dastardly, just to let any interested parties know that they were dealing with a criminal mastermind. And after that, I could tip Asda own brand vodka into a Cîroc bottle and pretend that P. Diddy had endorsed it.

Oh, wait, I don't actually have an empty bottle of Cîroc, and would have to buy it first. Drat and double drat.


Thursday 23 May 2013

A spritzer in a can – like fish in a barrel?

To my mind, the white wine spritzer is a perfectly dignified drink. Yes, it diminishes the wine – but it certainly enhances the water. 

There are occasions on which you have to watch the old alcohol intake, and for many of us, soft drinks are simply too sweet and cloying, whether on their own or – certainly – with a meal. A white wine with a bit of a whack in its flavour, diluted with sparkling water and served over ice, is a pleasant, crisp refreshing drink.

And then, I discovered an entire section in my supermarket dedicated to premixed drinks in cans – including this Echo Falls spritzer. Handy, or what? Well, as it turns out – what?

The real benefit of pre-mixed drinks surely lies in cocktails which require a dash of this, or a touch of that. This – and, if it comes to it, that – being an ingredient of which you never drink enough to justify purchasing an entire bottle. 

But a spritzer is hardly a creation for which you need one of those chaps calling themselves a “mixologist”, the qualifications for which seem to involve a crippling weight of pretension and a haircut like Nick GrimshawA spritzer only has two ingredients – wine and water – and surely if you possess sufficient intelligence and energy to raise a glass to your lips, you could be arsed to mix those together?

It seems not. According to a chap from a rival canned spritzer, Tres Spritzy,  who I met at the London International Wine Fair, it is the ready-mixed aspect which is the big selling point. They are designed to be “handy”, a term which is rapidly becoming a modern euphemism for “a bit crap”.

(It had been suggested to me that it might be the portability of the can which is key here, and that people might want to take it to events like festivals. Unfortunately, a lot of events actually ban cans, on the strong likelihood that you might want to “port” a missile at someone.)

It’s clear where this can’s target market lies, given the fact that it declares its calorie content per serving on the front, in significantly larger type than the alcohol level. Like most men, I neither know nor wish to know the calories in a drink. They fall into that category of figures surrounding drinks, including units of alcohol and cost, an ignorance of which is bliss.

And I’m sorry to say this, but the can also looks disturbingly like a feminine deodorant. This is a confusion I could imagine leading to unpleasant results for a lady, the lesser of which would be a mouthful of Femfresh.

In case you think I’m jumping to conclusions, look at the Echo Falls website, where it’s clear that the entire brand is aimed at women. I mean yes, I’ve had what their home page describes as “unscripted moments”, and only one of them involved a subsequent visit to the dry cleaners. 

But if I imagine “a chance meeting with a mate”, I don’t, as a bloke, envisage it “turning into a giggly night of girlie reminiscing.” Not with Big Richard from Stamford Bridge. There is a clear if unstated assumption that drinkers of Echo Falls will be women. Well, more Falls them.

The first surprise is that this spritzer is pink. An expert might know that White Zinfandel is, in fact, a rosé wine– the purchaser of a supermarket spritz in a can will probably not. No-one to whom I have shown the can, stating “Spritz with White Zinfandel”, expected a pink drink.

The second surprise is the level of effervescence; not the gentle spritz of a mineral water, nor the “sparkle” described on the can, but rather the more explosive quality of a Coca-Cola. This does nothing positive for the drink, although it might lift the aforementioned missile qualities up to weapons-grade.

Finally, there is the flavour. CJ once had the misfortune to drink White Zinfandel and legendarily declared that it made his teeth squirm. And this is not just a violently effervescent, cloyingly sweet White Zinfandel – oh, no. It is an “aromatised wine product cocktail” (sic); its bubblegum flavour has actually been somehow boosted. Until we have it: a spritzer, whose major attraction for adults is that it can replace sickly sweet fizzy drinks, engineered to replicate… a sickly sweet fizzy drink.

Still, at least it’s “handy”.


Thursday 16 May 2013

Apéritif Day - Lillet Rosé

Well this is timely. Did you know that today, May 16th, is National Apéritif Day, here in the UK? In the US, it's National Piercing Day (I'm not making this up), and in Malaysia it's National Teachers' Day, but it's already Apéritif Day where I am, and it's only ten o'clock in the morning.

How do I know this? Because Apéritif manufacturers Lillet have declared it so. Neither PK nor myself are going to get snotty about this appropriation of an entire 24 hours in mid-May, not least because last week we attended a little cocktail festival in the bar of the Brasserie Zédel (in the heart of London's bustling West End) where many delicious drinks were confected, all of them using Lillet in some combination - in a nod, as it happens, to James Bond, a Lillet fan. And yes, the whole event was so delicious it would be churlish and perverse to say otherwise.

Lillet itself, the classic apéritif tout court is also extremely likeable, perhaps not the red, a bit Christmas Puddingy, but the rosé - fresh, citrussy, astringent, nicely finessed - is worth shelling out for. On instruction, I went home and added a dash of it to some sparkling white - an Undurraga Brut from Chile - which wasn't a totally harmonious creation, the Undurraga having a touch of gravel about it, the occasional tartness of the Lillet making for something of a tangle, but the principle was sound. Prosecco, yes, might have kept the Lillet in better order, but still.

All that said, a hint of nervousness creeps in at the idea of a Day. I mean, it's worth a try, but National Apéritif Day isn't a day to focus consciousness on an emergent or already-well-established practice or concept; it's a day to try and drag something back from the lip of the grave before it disappears completely. This is not expressing a trend or desire, this is attempting to stay the cold hand of Fate.

Because however lovely and multifarious French apéritifs may be, they're stuck with at least two cultural difficulties: they belong to the wrong generation; and they often contain more than a whiff of provincial France, with all its touchiness, inconvenience, and regional amour-propre

It's your parents (or, charitably, the Mad Men crowd) who used to get stuck into the Dubonnet and Noilly Prat (as, indeed, they got stuck into the Campari and the Cinzano), not least because the demotic wine revolution hadn't yet happened, there was a higher tolerance of sweet & sticky, and everyone seems to have been plastered half the time, anyway.

Equally, there are slightly too many products to get your head round; all of them marked by some potent local characteristic - guaranteeing on the one hand a certain delirious otherness (especially when you drink them in context, on-site, on a warm evening), but on the other, generating a ton of complexity when you get back home and try and remember what was different about them in the first place. Byrrh, Suze, Pommeau, Dubonnet, Pineau des Charentes, Salers, Lillet, Bonal, Saint-Raphael - to say nothing of pastis (when I want my gums disinfected, I'll make an appointment) - are all good, sometimes great, in their ways, apart from the pastis, but (a) in London, on a wet February night? and (b) when the alternative is, say, a plain-dealing, no-nasty-surprises whisky & soda? And this is just when you're on your own. You know very well that if people come round, and pre-meal you start gesturing towards some obscure wine-based beverage infused with wild gentian, the act will reek of nothing less than a pathetic desperation to seem different.

Nevertheless. In the spirit, no pun intended, of National Apéritif Day, I shall slightly preciously and self-consciously fix myself an evening apéritif (Lillet? Noilly Prat? Punt e Mes?), before getting stuck into my usual special-offer grog, and see how the rest of the day pans out. Assuming it does pan out and I don't, as a consequence of my unfamiliar pre-drink drink, simply fall asleep at eight-thirty. Santé!


Thursday 9 May 2013

Austerity, wine and toad-in-the-hole

Here we are then, an austerity supper for these challenging times. A good old, bog-standard toad-in-the-hole. And a wine to match.

You might argue that in times of austerity, it is perfectly possible to give up wine altogether, and drink water with your meals. In which case I can only ask – have you been talking to my wife?

In our e-book, Wining & DiningI quote the American writer Adam Gopnik, who said “Dinner with water is dinner for prisoners.” Despite all of this cost-cutting palaver, there must, as CJ says, be wine, and it mustn’t be so foul that it makes your armpits prickle.

So if we are going to adjust our wining and dining to the economic climate, then perhaps we should look first at the assumptions of the wine merchants. Because frankly, it’s no good going on pretending that we are all scarfing down game, lobster, truffles and foie gras. We need to be eating things like sausages, stews and toad-in-the-hole. And we need the wines to match.

When we were told that a glass of wine was our ticket to a sophisticated lifestyle, you can see why the wine trade wanted to associate their product with high living and lavish dishes. But if they want us to treat wine as an everyday drink, then it needs to be matched with everyday food. There is no point in telling us that it goes with Downton-style banquets, or Masterchef “fayne dayning”.

Berry Bros & Rudd are arguably England’s poshest wine merchants. They not only sell wines to match with foie gras, they sell the foie gras itself. Yet they are surprisingly egalitarian in their food and wine matching proposals. You can find cottage pie, meatballs, Irish stew and fishcakes on their pairing listalong with the more predictable wild boar, partridge and lobster.

But others inadvertently reveal their true colours. Waitrose, for example, prickle when they are described as a “middle-class” supermarket, and proudly proclaim their brand price matching against Tesco. Yet they undo it all, by jauntily suggesting of an £8.99 carmenere that you “Try it with roast goose”.

And Majestic Wine still offers more pairings for game (22 wines) than for sausages (12), surely an inaccurate reflection of their hard-strapped customers’ eating habits. 

(Out of sheer mischief, I therefore put “horse” into Majestic’s search box. It actually came back with Sassaiolo Rosso Piceno SuperioreBizarrely, it’s because this wine was supposedly used by Hannibal to rub down his cavalry horses, to give them new vigour. That is presumably some kind of recommendation. Next week in the wine tasting, Vick’s Vapour Rub.)

Tesco themselves match their wines to a game-free diet, probably more representative of their clientele – beef, chicken, lamb, pork, fish and, er… curry. They do have the grace to admit that “Generally wines do not go well with hot, spicy dishes as the heat affects your taste buds” – before proceeding to recommend a couple. 

But we are heading down a rocky road; it’s but a short step from curries to takeaway doner kebabs and layby burgers. Are we really to recommend wines to accompany dishes from the low-rent category? “A nice spicy red which could mask the flavour of a dubious processed meat lasagne”? 

“A crisp rosé which will bring out the best in any Pot Noodle”?

No, far better to stick with traditional British austerity dishes. Like toad-in-the-hole, that combination of meat and Yorkshire pudding, described in an 1861 recipe as employing “bits and pieces of any kind of meat, which are to be had cheapest at night when the day's sale is over." 

Nowadays, you don’t have to wait for the night, you just visit the supermarket, where you get your “bits and pieces of any kind of meat” like it or not. Sausages are typical; an anatomy lesson in a skin.

The last time I cooked this, I bemoaned the fact that  such “bog-standard” dishes rarely featured in merchants’ tasting notes. Then some nice people got in touch from Tanner’s, an independent merchant, to say that they recommended their house Merlot, Pays d’Oc  specifically for toad-in-the-hole, and that despite my misgivings about merlot, they would like me to try a bottle. It is surprisingly easy to persuade us to try wines – merchants, PRs and winemakers please note – and a bottle of the 2011 duly arrived the next day, conveniently not when I was in the toilet. 

And jolly good it was, too. Silky and succulent, with a bit of a finish raising it above run-of-the-mill merlot. And yes, its smooth juiciness does indeed balance the spiciness of a Cumberland sausage. I would say it’s a nicely upholstered sofa of a wine – soft and comfortable if unremarkable. Tanner’s themselves are honest enough to describe it as “a nursery-slope vino”. It certainly won’t frighten any horse. 

This is what we need – wine which is recommended for dishes we actually eat. It cost £7.40 a bottle, but drinks like a couple of quid more. And think how much the toad-in-the-hole has saved over a Waitrose roast goose.


Thursday 2 May 2013

Tanker Wine - More Ventoux

So I'm having a drink with a pal who is normally something of a genius when it comes to original and creative thinking, and the pal says, this is what Sediment needs: We need to acquire a small tanker, or bowser, drive it down to the South of France, fill it full of rough red wine, the sort that retails down there at 50p a litre, drive it all the way back to England, turn up at one of the many Farmers' Markets you find in and around London, and sell the contents of the bowser at 50p a litre + transport costs, piping it into the customers' own receptacles through a petrol hose, like that Ventoux I bought all those years ago.

'It can't fail,' he says. 'It is one hundred per cent guaranteed success.'

As ideas go, I reply, this is less terrible than his other idea of building a novelty bubble car in the shape of an inverted Paris wine goblet, and driving it through the vineyards of Burgundy as a promotional tool, but only just.

'No, no,' he says, 'you're not seeing the full potential. Just think, the customer brings a plastic bottle, or flagon, to the Farmers' Market, and gets it filled up with authentic cheap red wine at an authentic price. How desirable is that? Maybe by a guy wearing a stripy vest and a beret.'

On a spectrum of terribleness, in fact, I would put it on a par with PK's now-discarded plan to launch the Sediment Roadshow, a kind of rock'n'roll wine tour ('Hallo, Oswestry!') in which PK and I charge an audience money to drink taster samples of bad wine, which we then disparage from the stage, amid bright lights and possibly dry ice. It has taken me a year to convince PK that I would rather eat loft insulation than submit to such an ordeal, but just writing it down, now, will probably set him off again.

'All you do,' continues the pal, 'is buy the stuff in sufficient quantity. You can't lose.'

I point out that the moment the bowser crosses the Channel, it will attract an eye-watering level of duty, which will instantaneously wipe out the bargain-basement advantage the grog originally enjoyed. Assuming, that is, it's survived the 700-mile drive, swilling about in a stainless steel container like the contents of a readymix cement truck.

He wrinkles his brow, as another insight comes in to land. 'No, you don't want a metal tanker. You want an actual oak wine vat, a really huge one, with Sediment painted on the side, attached to the back of the truck. People are going to queue up. The moment they see the huge vat, with the Frenchman in the vest. You could hire a Frenchman, a real one.'

But the staves of the barrel will move as the thing bounces over potholes, and the wine will leak out, and the Frenchman will be quite expensive in his own right, I say, not knowing why I'm even trying to rebut the concept - which seems to have acquired a life of its own, a Golem idea which cannot be killed.

'And the petrol hose coming out of it.'

There must be something about wine itself - some profound sense that it is not, still, quite culturally routine enough to be simply taken or left, used or not used, that draws the twitching hand of novelty towards it. I cannot believe that anyone would direct the same energetic whimsicality to grapefruit juice, say, or potatoes. Wine is still, at base, such an alien thing that it needs crazy repackaging, or off-the-wall tasting encounters, or special train journeys through wine-producing regions, or madcap stunts at Farmers' Markets, just to break through the otherness of it all.

But there it is. My fortune is going to be made by a huge, mobile barrel of undrinkable and overpriced red wine with a spreading puddle beneath it, served through a petrol hose by a comedy Frenchman, into washed-out 2-litre Coke bottles, and bought by people who can readily afford good, drinkable wines, properly presented in glass bottles with labels.

'If you can't see it,' he says, 'you're mad.'