Thursday 25 July 2013

Wine of the Week - Les Jamelles Syrah 2011

So the wife and I are driving through the townlet of Wilton, just outside Salisbury, and we need to get some food. It is an incredibly hot day and we have not been on speaking terms for the last hour, largely on account of the terrible heat. The only good thing is that there is parking outside the Co-Op in North Street. In silence we make our way into the shop's air-conditioned recesses.

I spend some time motionless by the ready-made sandwiches. My wife pointedly inspects the fresh fruit. She gestures with a packet of tomatoes towards the basket which I am holding. I make a play of indifference. She equally indifferently lobs the tomatoes in the basket before peering at the cooked meats and coleslaws, things in which she normally has little interest but which on these occasions can be pressed into service as indices of mute disgruntlement.

Wordlessly, I select a twin pack of Scotch Eggs and let her know through the medium of mime that I have a twin pack of Scotch Eggs. I sense her disdain. She piously fondles a reticule of small oranges. I motion towards the full-fat yoghurts with Westcounty Fudge flavourings. Impasse.

The Co-Op's instore radio is big on the Eighties and I start to feel sentimental, mostly about myself, as I stand next to the biscuits section. Eventually I say,

'We need milk.'
'Yes,' she says.
'And water.'

The basket is now almost full, so, increasingly martyred, I carry the two large bottles of fizzy water pressed against my chest with my left arm, like a pair of scuba tanks.

I need a treat. I start to look around for the wine. There is some. It's not a big shop, so the booze has to earn its keep. Which is good, because it also boils the agony of choice down to no more than three wines, an ideal number in which price is the alpha and omega of the decision-making process, with a small space in the middle in which to be swayed by the perceived quality of the label design, shape of the bottle, nature of the closure, grape variety.

And what do you know? They're doing an offer (that magical £5+) on a Les Jamelles Syrah 2011, about which I know nothing other than that it has a slender bottle, a screw cap and a very clever label with nicely-finessed curly lettering and artisanal undertones. I somehow find a free hand and sweep the bottle into our pile. My wife's silence on the matter is eloquent as we stand sullenly at the check-out.

But I have the last laugh, figuratively at any rate, four hours later as I sample the Les Jamelles and find it to be a Syrah without vindictiveness, a playful Syrah with enough pepper and tannins to make a go of it, but otherwise highly approachable. My inarticulacy is touched with gold from that point on.

Why am I going on like this? Only because we're off to Corsica in a week or so, and I can see this tableau being replayed over and over, like something out of Alain Robbe-Grillet, in the heat and inconvenience and ruinous expense of that island, with us standing in a succesion of dust-filled Corsican minimarts, failing to communicate. Will there be anything as obliging to drink as the Les Jamelles Syrah? Will there be air-conditioning? Will there be Scotch Eggs? If we don't learn from today's psychodrama, how are we going to get through two whole weeks of the same?

I meditate on this as the Syrah begins its priestly ministrations. My wife finally pipes up and says,

'So what was that all about?'
'Ah, well,' I say, admiring the glass and, mollified by the Syrah, not wishing to seem churlish, 'it's really not a bad red. Not bad at all.'
'That?' she says. 'Don't talk to me about that.'


Thursday 18 July 2013

Travels in the realms of cold

“Wine. Is. Red.” Not my words, but those of Christopher Hitchens, the legendary essayist and acclaimed drinker (or vice versa). He was foolishly asked by a waiter whether, having ordered wine, he would like red or white. And before this last fortnight, I would have agreed wholeheartedly, if only given my ingrained prejudice against those who poncily order a glass of ‘wayte wayne’. 

But like a malign conjunction of stars, the last fortnight has seen both a heatwave and the breakdown of our fridge. Actually, the former may have caused the latter, I was cheerfully told by the so-called 'repair man', who came and informed us that the fridge was a write-off, and 'repaired' only back to his van.

Perhaps not surprisingly, under the circumstances, I have been slightly obsessing about the concept of cold white wine. Cold, crisp, light, cold white wine. Glistening with condensation on the outside of the glass. This is not the time to stay in with only tinned food and a shiraz in which you can stand a spoon. This is the time to go out – for wine which, even if it’s not particularly good, is light, refreshing…and cold.

A bad white wine is usually more tolerable than a bad red wine. A bad red can be vile, tasting of ink and silage, and there’s not much you can do about it. A bad white is usually just acidic, which you can generally get down with a wince and a shudder. And if you chill it right down, the first hit will numb your palate, sufficient to disguise the hints, at which cheap white wines excel, of the refinery and the urinal.

White is also generally lower in alcohol than red, so you can drink more of it. I’m with Robert, the character in Pinter’s wonderful play Betrayal, who orders a second bottle of white at lunch having polished off most of the first. “I’m not drunk,” he insists. “You can’t get drunk on Corvo Bianco.”

Which helps to makes white arguably a better lunch wine than red. “What were the Café Royal wits witty on?” a historian of the Café Royal once commented. “Not the heavy red Burgundies, but yellow wine and Seltzer.” 

Or as Keith Waterhouse – acclaimed essayist and legendary drinker (or vice versa) – once put it, “there’s no doubt that the wine that travels best with the lunchtime banter and gossip is not served at room temperature.”

But chilling a red in public is not really a serious option. Yes, you can chill Beaujolais, you can stick it in an ice bucket, even put ice into it; but you’ll sit there in a restaurant just knowing that others are looking, and nudging –  because how do you project the air that You Know What You’re Doing?

(It’s like the Duke of Windsor, getting away with wearing brown suede shoes with a blue chalkstripe suit, because, as one of his friends commented, “It would be wrong if it were a mistake. But the Duke knows better – so it’s alright.” Jancis could sit there sipping champagne through a straw, and everyone would think it was a smart thing to do. How do I communicate that I am doing this chilled red thing knowingly, that it’s an act of deliberation and not a further sign of encroaching senility? I have the same issue with my yearning to wear mismatching coloured socks…)

And even chilling your white can lead to problems. You run the risk in a restaurant that your bottle will be spirited away to an ice bucket standing against the wall, tempting but inaccessible, like the water of Tantalus. 

Your lunch then becomes dominated by calculating the relative speeds of drinking and service; do I ask for a top-up now, or will he be back again before I really need one? You are reduced to semaphore, pointing at the ice-bucket, back at your glass, raising your eyebrows, in short everything except clutching your throat and croaking. When people speak of a restaurant as a theatre, I don’t think they had in mind a diner miming dehydration.

So only an icebucket at the table is really acceptable. One with a linen napkin for the drips. And one with enough ice to make that marvellous scrunching noise, perhaps the most mouthwatering sound in wine after the pop of a cork. 

Don’t bother with those things which look either like perspex flower vases, or miniature terracotta chimneypots. They don’t work. And those little jackets which you put in the freezer do work, but they look ridiculous. If you want something in a puffa jacket at your table, invite a Sloane Ranger.

And of course, a proper icebucket means you can do that triumphant thing of upending the finished bottle for all to see. There. Yes, thank you, we’ve polished that one off. 

And, do you know, as we're out, I think we might have another…


Thursday 11 July 2013

Celebrity Wines - The Sediment Selection

So in a desperate attempt to make some money, I have decided (I haven't told PK yet) to get into the online celebrity wine retailing business. And no, this has nothing to do with the Francis Ford Coppola range, or the Ernie Els range, or (tragically) the AC/DC range, or indeed anything that might actually involve growing grapes or making wine or getting anyone's consent. 

No, the idea came to me, like the smell coming off a rubbish tip in July, to take the cheapest wholesale grog I could find and simply append any name to it which has a slightly wine-flavoured resonance – to the credulous, inattentive and hard of hearing, at least – and at once quadruple the throughput of interested parties to the retail website.

How does it work? You ask. 

Well, take a look at these examples:

Mel Blanc, a dry white, made of absolutely anything (Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc) as long as it embodies the cheeky comedic brilliance of the late Mel Blanc, The Man Of A Thousand Voices - among them Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Barney Rubble. A fun-loving, often hilarious wine, bright, with a subtle nose and a crisp finish, perfect served chilled as an apéritif, or just to while away those balmy summer evenings. Online price: £5.99 a bottle, or £4.99 if you buy more than two.

Robert Graves 2010, another white, but a very different beast from the Mel Blanc. This comes from the workbench of Luc Grenouille - one of the Bordeaux region's most exciting wine makers - a classic yet modern Graves, dense with peachy overtones and grassy undertones, a fine wine to accompany a reading of I, Claudius or The White Goddess, but not, on balance, Goodbye To All That. Complex, occasionally unsettling, the Robert Graves 2010 is a wine that will get people talking. Online price: £10.99 a bottle, or £11.99 if you buy a case, as the cardboard's surprisingly expensive.

Nick Cave: a selection of thunderous, doom-laden reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Shiraz, mainly) and grinding, industrial whites (mostly Sauvignon Blanc, some paraffin) from this Australian cellar, which has been turning out spectacular wines for over thirty years. The Nick Cave range is not for the faint-hearted, nor for the inexperienced. Mature drinkers, though, will find much to enjoy in these wines, ranging from £1.49 to £149.99 a bottle, all presented in uniformly unlabelled black glassware. Not to be confused with Nicolás Cava, a different drink altogether.

Merle Oberon: a tribute to the lovely, late, movie actress, this soft, velvety Merlot, with keynotes of berries and plums, is made from grapes grown all over the world - a gesture to the international, jet-setting, sometimes tragic, lifestyle of the star of such classics as Aren't We All?, First Comes Courage and All Is Possible In Granada. It's an easy-drinking, quietly glamorous red, with a picture of Miss Oberon as Lady Blakeney from The Scarlet Pimpernel on the label. Best enjoyed at room temperature, with one's hair in a chignon. Online price: £7.99 a bottle.

Vin Diesel - a range of reds, white and rosés specifically aimed at the younger, blockbuster movie crowd. Any one of the Vins Diesel will be certain to delight, stimulate and intoxicate its consumer, leaving his or her ears ringing and with a head like a cement block. No-nonsense, lock-and-load, take-no-prisoners reds are Shiraz with 10% Mourvèdre; no-nonsense, lock-and-load, take-no-prisoners whites are Pinot Gris with 10% Viognier; no-nonsense, lock-and-load, take-no-prisoners rosés are dilute Red Bull with 20% antifreeze. Online price: £4.99 a bottle, £3.99 by the case. The safety catch is off with these bad boys! (Proof of age required)

You get it? In the confusion that invariably attends buying anything online, I can simultaneously befuddle authentic wine purchasers, littérateurs, movie buffs and music fans into paying for something they neither need nor want, merely by making my assets work harder. I would also add that I welcome further suggestions in this line (no Ron Burgundies or Freddie Mercureys, please, we want to keep it real) with a share in the profits for any workable ones. Remember, though, the idea's mine.


Thursday 4 July 2013

Gullible's Travels – 58 Guineas Claret

There are still some of us, it seems, who aspire to some fantasy notion of Olde English aristocracy. A “worlde” created by marketers, wherein we dine, attired in our vestments, upon provender accompanied by trucklements. And, of course, imbibing our libations. While we watch the telly. 

The Georgians were big on luxury claret. It was an 18th century signifier of wealth, power and good taste. Might something of that, from a label like this, rub off upon the 21st century? Let’s try it, thought “the biggest AOC wine group in France”  After all, the only thing Georgian this market probably encounters in modern life is the Metropolitan Police.

And so, here it all is – hogsheads, guineas, claret, George III coins, our first Prime Minister and an old wine merchant, shovelled on to one label, with all the historical inaccuracy a gullible public might swallow with their wine. Oh, and untroubled by the idea that naming a wine with its price is unspeakably vulgar.

Let us consider this pseudo-Georgian world, in which we buy our claret by the hogshead. This is a measure probably alien to Messrs Majestic, to whom a hogshead is something you would buy from a butcher’s. But our wine is supplied from the substantial-looking premises of C Chevalier, Wine Merchant. Judging by the architecture, and the customers, commercial success clearly took the business well into the subsequent century. 

Yet surprisingly, I couldn’t find a record of C Chevalier, Wine Merchant. Perhaps the business is now hiding its light under a bushel. Or a hogshead. 

But its substantial-looking building does however strangely resemble the premises of one Call & Tuttle, Furnishing Goods and Merchant Tailors, of Boston. There seems to be an extraordinary similarity, not only in the architecture, but even in the clientele. It would be so easy to confuse the two; I do hope there is no confusion about our handsome order of claret.

Equally troubling is the version of history projected by the rest of this label. 

When Britain made peace with France in 1713, claret was a pricey (and fashionable) commodity, especially with the wealthy London set,” the label tells us. “One such connoisseur was Sir Robert Walpole (First Lord of the Treasury at the time) who used his contacts in the navy to smuggle in his favourite clarets from France. It is said that he purchased up to twenty hogsheads in a year to satisfy the British tastes for claret at a price of around 58 Guineas per hogshead.

For one thing, “when Britain made peace with France in 1713”, with the Treaty of Utrecht, Queen Anne was on the throne – not George III, whose numismatically attractive coins are depicted on the label. George III wasn’t crowned until 1760. 

And Sir Robert Walpole was not “First Lord of the Treasury at the time”; he first gained that title in 1715, under George I, and properly in 1721. Never mind hogsheads, this is hogwash.

Is there any connection between this claret and that which Walpole bought? The name, perhaps? Er, no – because, of course, the word claret does not exist in French, so they would never have put it on a label themselves. 

And surprisingly little is recorded about Walpole’s struggles with the closure. “Your Majesty, I continue to be concerned about the South Sea Trading Company, to say nothing of these wretched screwcaps which the merchant Chevalier has put upon my claret…”

However, Walpole did, at the peak of his career decades later, get through up to 20 hogsheads of claret a year. In the fascinating book, The Politics of Wine in Britain: A New Cultural History, Charles Ludington explains that “At the height of his power in 1733 [nb], Walpole spent over £1,150 on wine, a sum that amounted to more than the annual income of a prosperous country gentleman like his father…Specifically, Walpole purchased seven hogsheads of Margaux, three of Lafite, one of Haut Brion…Taken together, Walpole’s purchases of luxury claret in 1733 amounted to approximately 234 bottles per month, or nearly eight bottles per day.”

But much as I would respect such an heroic level of drinking, Walpole did not negotiate the Anglo-Austrian alliance under the personal influence of eight bottles of claret. He hosted wine-fuelled political gatherings, “little snug parties of thirty-odd”, at his Houghton Hall. I would therefore draw attention to the difference between purchase and consumption, as I’m sure Walpole had to do to his own spouse.

And would Sir Robert, drinker of Margaux, Lafite and Haut Brion, have ordered hogsheads of this blended contemporary brew for Houghton Hall? Hardly. This is a light, easy-drinking Bordeaux, with a relatively bright nose, thinnish in the mouth with a certain earthy quality. Oh, it’s drinkable, but it’s not as interesting or special as it should be for £8.79. As if it’s a good thing, they declare cheerfully at the end of their label description that there is “No need to decant!”. No, none indeed. 

There is, of course, an issue as to how closely one might really wish to emulate that “connoisseur”, Walpole. Swift was among those who criticised the venality of his government, and of “upstart monied men” like him. Thanks to his profligate lifestyle, Bob Booty, as he was lampooned, weighed 20 stone, and was described as “inelegant in his manners, loose in his morals” by the Earl of Chesterfield.

But, Chesterfield also said that “He degraded himself by the vice of drinking.” Not all bad, then.