Thursday 27 June 2013

Corkscrew (Lambrusco)

So my old Screwpull corkscrew has finally given up the ghost. Since there are effectively only two working parts in a Screwpull this is as much as to say that the Teflon® has worn off the screw so that the knife-through-butter sensation I used to get when taking out a cork has degenerated into a nail-through-tarmac feeling, quite apart from the fact that the corks seem to come out broken more often than they used to.

What to get as a replacement? Same again, no? Well, kind of, except that in the intervening years I have found something which I think is better than a Screwpull - an updated Waiter's Friend, with a nicely-engineered double-action neck brace (you know, that little metal arm which hooks over the neck of the bottle to provide leverage) and (the killer feature) a bit of Teflon® on the screw to make it supersimple to insinuate it into the cork. Advantages over the Screwpull being that you don't have drive the screw all the way through the cork to get it out (risking breakage, or a leaky cork when you re-cork the bottle) and you can get the thing out much quicker, because less time is spent on the Archimedes Screw as it elevates the cork into the air. With a bit of practice, an intact cork can be out in five seconds, that double-jointed lever doing all the work for you.

How do I know this? Because we have one. Trouble is, it lives on the boat where (believe you me) it has been a life-saver, and I can't bring myself to nick it and put an inferior substitute in its place. Do I actually have an inferior substitute, just supposing I found it in me to sink that bit lower on the moral scale? Yes, a 21st-Century Waiter's Friend bought from John Lewis, where it looked great, no-slip rubber grip, nice brushed metal finish: only problem being that it has a crap screw and a lever arm which is as much use as a toothpick.

So it's off to the Internet, and where I assumed there would be only two choices of corkscrew available in this world (Screwpull or Waiter's Friend), given that for a corkscrew to be worth advertising at all it must be both simple to use and completely reliable, given the high-stress situations in which it finds itself.

It turns out however, that human ingenuity has really let itself run riot in the matter of corkscrews, giving us more ways to open a bottle than there are stains on a plumber's vest.

- You can get them with professional bar staff single-action levers

- You can get them motorised

- You can get them motorised with one-hand operation

- You can get them with that old-fashioned both-arms-in-the-air double lever action (one of the very worst ways of getting a cork out, 95% chance of a complete breakdown)

- You can get them as an attachment for an electric drill

- You can get them brass-plated and wall-mounted

- You can get a novelty Bill Clinton corkscrew (the screw emerging from Bill's crotch, and I am not making this up)

- You can, unbelievably, still get that cork extractor that isn't a corkscrew at all, but two slim fingers of metal that slide down between the cork and the neck of the bottle, possibly a worse idea even than the arms-in-the-air corkscrew

- You can get the wooden handled moron's corkscrew - that Flintstone's corkscrew that I think my Mum still has, a shaped wooden grip and a metal screw that smashes any cork it meets into seventy tiny fragments

- You can get a corkscrew that looks a bit like a tulip

- You can get a corkscrew that looks like a moustache

- You can get a corkscrew that looks like a parrot

And so on, seemingly without end. In fact there were only two stupid ones that I couldn't find. One was that appalling all-wood dual-action thing we had to put up with in the Seventies - as PK reminded me - where one tap-shaped handle drove the screw into the cork, and a second one, set on a contra-rotating thread, drew the cork out. It looked it as it was made out of the leftovers of a ski Chalet and no-one ever knew how to work it. The other was the sort that pumped air into the bottle through a hypodermic needle, the air pressure slowly forcing the cork out from below and presumably adding a quick spritz to your first glassful of Gevrey-Chambertin. No sign of it either.

On the other hand, where were the groovy two-step Waiter's Friends + Teflon®? Where, even, was the basic Screwpull? Eventually I stumbled upon a sane part of the Internet, with both sorts and, just to seal the deal, the prices of Screwpulls and Screwpull variations seemed to have gone through the roof, especially when all you're buying is two bits of plastic and a cheap metal thread, so that was my choice made for me: Waiter's Friend, with all the trimmings.

But wait: do I even need a new corkscrew, given that nearly all my wine comes out of a bottle with a screw top? Well, at an Italian wine tasting the other day, there were many delicious wines in bottles with corks, and I did think that I might need to open bottles like these, just supposing my life takes a quite unexpected turn at some point in the near future. (Parenthetically I also thought, Do all Italian reds have the same nose but different everything else? [With the exception of Lambrusco, which I tried for the sake of nostalgia {in the Eighties it used to come with a brushed nylon Fun Bug free toy as an etxra inducement} only to find that it smelled of laundry and dung and tasted like fag ash]). So, yes, it is necessary and I will get a new Waiter's Friend, and all I will need then is the remaining £10.99 to get a bottle of wine which justifies a cork.


Thursday 20 June 2013

Shall I compare thee...?

I am not buying any more wine at the moment. Honestly. So you can halt the veritable rainforest of Summer lists, flyers and special offers, which have been coming in through the door but doing a rapid u-turn out into the recycling bin.

I am touched by the faith of wine merchants in both my consumption and my affluence, neither of which appear to be echoed by my wife. Only this weekend, Mrs K commented upon the quantity of wine in our cellar, and asked pointedly if I would be buying any more. 

I explained that most of the wine downstairs could not be drunk for some years yet. In fact, I had had a phone call from one merchant, trying to persuade me into buying some 2012 en primeur. Frankly I had better not, given that the 2005, and the 2009, are still sitting in the cellar and attracting baleful glares from my beloved. 

And nor can I currently risk topping up supplies of everyday drinking, since the notion of “drinking every day” also seems to be under marital scrutiny.

So it is purely for entertainment value that I have been reading these mailings. On which they score significantly more highly, I suspect, than the wines they contain.

I realised a long time ago that many of these wines are only available from their particular merchant. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but it does mean that there are unlikely to be any comparative tasting notes online. So in order to “explain” these little-known wines to punters, the merchants resort to their own comparisons. The method goes like this: “You know that wine you’ve heard of? Well, this one is just like it!”

This is what happens in the books market, of course. You get a bestseller like 50 Shades of Grey, or The Da Vinci Code, and suddenly there are dozens of books emulating the design and the title. In these cases you certainly can judge a book by its cover – it’ll be a bit like the well-known one, only not as good.

Is that what these wine merchants are trying to tell us?

I was driven to this thought when I got a flyer for Clefs du Pontif, a Grenache Syrah Pays d’Oc which, the offer told me, was a “Chateauneuf Look-a-like”.

Now, I don’t want to be pedantic about this. Oh alright, I do. How can a wine be a “look-a-like” of another? It’s red, and it’s liquid, ergo it looks astonishingly like another red, liquid wine?

Or is it because it has a label carefully constructed with an Olde-Worlde typeface, and an ancient-looking image incorporating a sword and a key, which might if you squinted and offered “A glass of C du P, old chap?”, pass for Chateauneuf du Pape?

(In much the same way, no doubt, that The Rembrandt Secret is a “look-a-like” of The Da Vinci Code)

A lot of effort is being expended in order to produce comparisons which will flatter unknown wines, and pander to a customer’s assumed experience and aspirations. Either that, or most customers are trying to fool their guests.

“This is as close as you’ll get to Champagne without paying for the real thing,” one merchant says. 

Or, “Made from 100% Chardonnay it’s a ringer for white Burgundy.” 

Or, most crudely, “A Rioja in all but name”.

Well then it’s not, is it? The Rolex company sell a cheaper line of watches with the brand name Tudor; they look like a Rolex, they were created by Rolex, they are “a Rolex in all but name” – but they’re not a bloody Rolex, are they?

The more I read this particular offer of “Star Buys” etc, the more risible seemed their comparisons. “The red bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Chateauneuf du Pape.” I like to think I bear more than a passing resemblance to a young Alan Bates, but I’m not sure that description would identify me at Passport Control.

And what about a “Sancerre-style favourite”, a Sauvignon Blanc “reminiscent of Sancerre at twice the price”. It’s called… Sincérité. No doubt it’s even more “reminiscent” of Sancerre if you offer it slightly drunk, badly pronounced, with a cough at the end – “Do have a glass of Sincér(cough)”  

Away with all these ringers, reminiscences and resemblers. Comparisons, the Bard said, are odorous. And perhaps that explains why this week’s recycling is a little more pungent than usual. 


Thursday 13 June 2013

Birthday Drinking - Moët & Chandon, Pinot Noir, Welsh wine, neat ethanol

So my Father-in-law is celebrating a birthday of great magnitude, and we all go down to his place at the absolute limits of Wales to celebrate 
the event. About the second thing I see when we get there is a bottle of Cwm Deri Estate Reserve Welsh Quality Sparkling Wine.

'Someone gave me that for my birthday,' he says.

'I hope we're going to drink it,' I say, almost too excited by the prospect of Welsh mock-Champagne to get the words out.

'We could,' he says, putting it back on the shelf from which it came with a gesture full of significance.

So we don't drink that, nor the Cwm Deri Cwmbuie Bourbon-Style Liqueur which came with it. I compress my feelings into a pill of disappointment, as instead we neck some Moët & Chandon real Champagne on his swanky deck overlooking an immense body of Welsh water.

Then we all pile into a minibus and go off to a hotel for a slap-up dinner.

There, the wine list comes round and I experience a momentary panic that my Pa-in-Law and Brother-in-Law are going to round on me and say, You write a so-called wine blog, what should we have? In which event my default response is always to choose the second cheapest wine, whatever colour, and let nature take its course.

Fortunately, the Pa-in-Law and the Bro-in-Law have decided views about wines, particularly reds.

'What about this Zinfandel?' my Pa-in-Law asks.
'No, no, we can't have that,' answers the Bro-in-Law.
'What about this Chilean Pinot Noir?' he replies.
'Oh, yes,' says the Bro-in-Law, 'we can have that.'

Since I am not paying for any part of the feast, I have no idea if this is second cheapest or third most expensive, and let out a discernible sigh of relief. A Californian Chardonnay (for the ladies) also makes its way onto the order, and we get stuck in.

Some way into the meal, though, wines of any sort, Welsh or Californian, suddenly vanish into trite inconsequentiality when my Pa-in-Law reveals that he used to make bathtub poteen when he was a boy, growing up in Birmingham.

'Oh yes,' he says, 'everybody did it.'

There is a collective gasp and a clattering of dropped cutlery. My Pa-in-Law looks offended and very slightly defensive, a first for him.

'Well, I used to do it in the basement. We used to put just about anything in the mash, and I used to distill it off. I had a coil condenser. I don't know where I got it from. I just acquired it.'

This was when he was still at school, doing the pre-War equivalent of GCSEs. He later became a high-powered metallurgist, designing tanks for the Army in WWII, but at the time he was in his early teens.

We stare at him, our expressions both appalled and reverential. He looks increasingly hurt.

'I did know the difference between ethanol and methanol. It was just a question of getting the temperature right.'
'But who the hell drank this stuff?' I ask.
'Oh, my mother. She used to drink anything.'

His father was an amateur prize-fighter, and his mother ('A wonderful woman') drank bathtub hooch. I have known my Pa-in-Law for over thirty years, but tonight I look at him with a new respect, a respect that cannot be articulated except by a brief attack of hiccups.

Amazingly, he seems not to want this attention. He is, however, rescued by the hotel we are eating in. We need a fresh bottle of Pinot Noir, but they have run out and there is only the Zinfandel left. We accept this but my Bro-in-Law pronounces it inferior to the Pinot Noir, even though it costs more, and says as much to the deafeningly Welsh lady in charge.

'I'll make it the same price,' she says magnanimously, before wrapping her bosoms round my (seated, and therefore vulnerable) Pa-in-Law and shouting, 'Isn't he lovely, the Birthday Boy?'

The bathtub hooch is forgotten in the confusion, and we make our way, with a sense of growing disorientation, towards the pudding course.

But thinking about it now: an illicit still in your own basement! That is living it large. She survived well into her seventies, my Pa-in-Law's mother. And the master-distiller himself? Just turned ninety.

Happy Birthday, Ray!


Thursday 6 June 2013

Gewurtztraminer – God's picnic wine

Oh dear. The sun’s come out. Which means someone’s going to suggest a picnic…

The problem with the word picnic is that it raises unreasonable expectations – the first being the location. It conjures up a sylvan scene where, if Manet is anything to go by, people can enjoy their dejeuner sur l’herbe naked if they wish, without fear of interruption or, indeed, nettles. 

There is a distinct absence of such picnic sites in real life. If you do find an isolated spot, the reason why no-one else is there will only become evident after you have spread out your repast; it may involve insects, imminent crop spraying, or an irate farmer demanding that you “Get ‘orf moy land!”

Then there is the food. Tell someone you’re having a packed lunch, and they’ll be happy with a sandwich. Tell them it’s a picnic, and suddenly we’re all into thoughts of wicker baskets, with contents so extensive that they need to be packed by both Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason. Unreasonable expectations again. This is Wind in the Willows territory, where the Water Rat’s basket contained “Cold-chicken-cold-tongue-cold-ham-cold-beef-pickled-gherkin-salad-french-rolls-cress-sandwiches-potted-meat-ginger-beer-lemonade…” But not, I see, any wine.

And of course, the wine is crucial, because at least it means that after a disappointing meal in a disappointing location, you can at least subside into a sun-warmed stupor – probably the highlight of the afternoon, before you wake an hour later painfully sunburnt, dehydrated and dying for a pee.

I was once told that gewurtztraminer, that unctous, lychee-fragranced yet spicy wine from Alsace,  is “God’s picnic wine”. I have clung to this statement, particularly after once drinking the delicious Rolly Gassmann gewurtztraminer, which comes in at around £17 a bottle when you can find it.

But this is surely a bit expensive for something that’s probably going to be consumed out of a plastic beaker. and accompanied by notoriously horrible British picnic items like entire cold, hard-boiled eggs. So when I found this £5.99 Cono Sur gewurtztraminer from Chile, I thought that here might be the perfect solution. God’s picnic wine, only cheaper. 

I overcame the immediate perversity of such a defiantly Germanic name coming from Chile. (I can somehow accept French terms, like merlot, coming from South America, but German just sounds wrong, like an SS wanted list…) And obviously, in order to replicate the appropriate circumstances, I removed the wine from the fridge some time earlier earlier in order to reach picnic temperature – tepid – and shook it around to simulate travel before opening.

Let there be no confusion between Cono Sur, a place, and connoisseur, a person. Because the latter would have no truck with such a shoddy wine as this. It is a pale ghost of the real thing. Its vaguely floral characteristics disappeared, as Mrs K complained, by the second mouthful – which is a bit of an issue for her, given that she usually only drinks two mouthfuls. Instead, acidity and alcohol sear through the balance of what should be an unctuous wine, and leave a crude afterburn in the throat like swallowing vinegar. 

You could argue that such disillusionment goes along with abandoning the vision of wicker baskets on the riverbank, and settling instead for gnawing a hard-boiled egg in what is euphemistically described as a “picnic area”, where people let their children off their leads. But in that case, I would rather take a bottle of beer. 

And I will save a good bottle of God’s picnic wine for the day I’m invited to God’s picnic.