Thursday 29 August 2013

Corsican Intermezzo: Gaspa Mora

So the summer break finally comes to an end, we return from Corsica and the South of France to a house smelling like a bale of dirty hockey socks and with the back garden full of mouldering spoil from the walnut tree, and our tans wash off instantly under the shower, and there is no milk in the fridge because we forgot to get some on the way back, and what have we learned?

FACT: There are more Italians in southern Corsica in August than there are Italians in Italy.

FACT: Corsican main roads are only a metre wide, but will expand magically so that a peloton of cyclists, a campervan and two terrified Brits in an unsuitable hire car can simultaneously occupy the same space and gaze out over the sea which is a 200-metre vertical drop just below them.

FACT: I saw no-one with a thick black bandit moustache, nor a knife tucked into his boot; but the road signs are worryingly (by British standards) peppered with bullet-holes.

FACT: One of the more popular Corsican wines (and there are plenty to choose from) is actually called Gaspa Mora and this is perfectly true. Just look at the photo and tell me I'm lying.

Let's pause there and ask, How do I know about Gaspa Mora?

The usual way.

After all, once you've unpacked your stuff and discovered that you've brought conditioner with you instead of suntan cream and that your Kindle charger has been left at home, what do you do but head off to the nearest LeClerc or SuperU for some wonderfully affordable grog? And what do you then discover but that Corsica, far from being a sweltering lump of rock covered in deadly maquis and members of the French Foreign Legion doing parachute jumps, is actually verdant and surprisingly fertile? Wines and award-winning cheeses litter the place, among the former a nice Réserve du President red (see photo) and an even nicer Vermentino/Chardonnay mix called Terraza (ditto), neither of them, I'm half-remembering, coming in at over five Euros a bottle.

But the clincher is the Gaspa Mora, which not only has the best name of any wine I have ever come across - I mean, have you ever heard of anything so candid, so direct, in its appeal? - but is available in red, white and pink, and, astoundingly, comes in at about three Euros, depending on which supermarket chain you visit.

What does it taste like? Pretty good, if the conditions are right. I tried the red and the white, and having steeled myself for something unthinkable (especially vis-à-vis the white) was pleased to find that the red was anonymously velvety with no major side-effects, while the white was simply anonymously wine-like as long as it was kept shrouded in a chilly autumnal dew, which meant dashing back and forth to the fridge an awful lot.

A quick Google back at base subsequently reveals that what I was drinking was Nielluccio - whatever that is - plus Merlot in the red; and straight Vermentino in the white, which came as a slight surprise as I associate Vermentino with something more vegetable than the vague floral impressions left by the Gaspa, but still. Both red and white have that easy-drinking dosser's quality that I look for nine times out of ten on the supermarket shelf, and both stayed fresh to the bottom of the bottle, despite several days of on-off usage.

I also find that Gaspa seems to be confined to the narrow shores of Corsica itself, with no chance of a breakout in the near future. I guess they don't make enough to export, and perhaps one shouldn't be sad that they don't: these holiday relationships rarely work out. I would hate the name of Gaspa Mora to be compromised by rough handling, UK taxation and insensitive in-store promotions. I would also hate the label - gilt and a kind of faux-marbre, like a Beverly Hills bathroom - to be given a calming graphical makeover for the Northern European market.

And now I think about it: what kind of clientele would it attract - over here - with a name like that? No, no. It wouldn't do. File it under, I don't know, One-time Instant Nostalgia, and be grateful that I had the relationship at all. Just me, the sunset, and the Gaspa.


Thursday 15 August 2013

House Wines for the home – a sensible notion…

Maybe, I was thinking, what my home needs are a couple of House Wines. Go-to, drinkable, red and white, not for special occasions but for everyday. Dependable, versatile and cheap, so you can drink them without fuss. And bought by the case, so they’re always there when you need them. Like a restaurant’s house wines – but at home. This, to me, seemed sensible.

But as we all know, there is a critical edge to the notion of ‘sensible’. It’s one of the worst possible adjectives to append to characterful things, like clothes, or cars. It suggests that one has sacrificed something expressive to the dull priorities of finance and practicality. So is there such a thing as a sensible wine purchase?

This all started when I spotted a Chilean sauvignon blanc called Phantom River, reduced at Sainsbury’s from £7.49 to £4.99. I know, I know, it probably wasn’t worth £7.49 in the first place, but suddenly it had crossed that magic £5 pricepoint, at which skies clear, veils are lifted from one’s eyes, and one is transported back into an era when telephones had dials.

And it’s a perfectly adequate white wine. It’s a sauvignon blanc, and you know what that tastes like – crisp, grapefruity, faintly floral, no mucking about. Okay, there’s a load of guff on the back label about a ‘phantom of the river’ which we could do without, but the front label is perfectly presentable and won’t disgrace a supper table. Drinkable, presentable, £4.99 – what’s not to like?

And then, Sainsbury’s announced another offer, whereby six bottles of any wine gained a further 25% reduction – even if it was reduced already. So suddenly, six bottles which were already a pretty impressive £30 give or take had another £7.50 taken off. That’s £3.75 a bottle. (No, don’t be awed, I’ve got a calculator.)

It’s pretty remarkable to find any wine for £3.75 a bottle which isn’t an emetic. Surely it had to be sensible to buy half a dozen? Which is why I picked up a case – well, hoisted might be a better word for an entire case – and returned to the trolley with a box under my arm like a parent with a recalcitrant toddler.

(Of course one has to suffer the lifestyle betrayal of any bulk purchase in one’s trolley, but a quantity of wine, with its suggestion of profligate consumption, is less embarrassing than, say, an entire case of Anusol.) 

So, a case of cheap, drinkable, and reasonably good-looking wine – that’s my House White taken care of, for, ooh, at least a week.

I came across my House Red in a mixed case of “Under £6” wines from The Wine Society. It’s Cortello,  a basic vinho tinto from near Lisbon. The 2012 they’re now selling is a bit more gnarly than the 2010 I started with, but it’s bright, it’s young, bit of blackcurrant on the nose, fruity yet puckish in that manner of Portuguese wines – it’s a good tumbler wine – and it’s £5.95 a bottle.

You can cook with wine at that price without regret, but you can drink this one too. Indeed, I find that opening a bottle in order for someone to cook with it is a very fine prelude to someone (else) drinking the rest of the bottle. 

But in fact, Mrs K also enjoys drinking this one; and again, I’ve found that coming up from the cellar with a bottle of which one can say, “It’s that one you like,” will lower many an accusatory eyebrow. All good, sensible reasons for my House Red.

It’s just that…

Here I am, buying cases of wines I know are basically… okay. There’s something on the troubling side of sensible about it, like buying baked beans in multipacks. Who really wants to admit that future to themselves?

What one loses is the spirit of adventure. And I’m an adventurous man. Well, the sort of man who removes a USB stick without ejecting it properly.

And I enjoy that moment of anticipation before I open an unknown bottle. That reappraisal of the label, holding the bottle at arm’s length as if distance will grant objectivity. Trying to remember where it came from, what it cost, whether a dinner guest left it as a gift. Trying to assess what it might taste like, what it should taste like, to see if you’ve learnt from your mistakes. Asking yourself one question – do you feel lucky?

But perhaps the sensible is a shackle one accepts in middle age; the price of forward planning. Our household also bulk purchases toilet rolls and car windscreen wash, and neither of them provide excitement or adventure. It’s just nice to know they’re there. 

And at least with wine, you can have the best of both worlds. You might not be able to have in your garage both the practical, dependable modern article and the unreliable but good-looking and potentially exciting vintage – but you can in your wine cellar.


Thursday 8 August 2013

Waitrose Australian Red, Smooth & Spicy - William Burroughs

While CJ is away, we take this opportunity to publish an appreciation of the Waitrose Australian Red ('Smooth and Spicy'), £4.99 a bottle, written by the late William Burroughs shortly before his death in 1997. 

Known principally for his numerous drug addictions, Burroughs was also an occasional user of budget supermarket wines. Devotees of The Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine will observe that, although this is one of Burroughs' last writings, it recalls those earlier works in both idiom and tonality.


Insect eyes watch painful in junk dawn - river smell rises in a mist, rotting vegetation, black mud like iron - Under the lights a Matron in blue denim screams, her face green with rage, 'I HAVE TO HAVE IT! IT'S ON ORDER!' - ghetto clerk scuttles away, pyrethrum addiction, his fingers rotting - wind in an alley - a truck reverses

My name is Dr Benway, surgical extremes, spectral dismemberments, you need to ask? Every time they come in, Dr Benway they say, it's the last words they ever hear. You want my advice? Shiraz grape, pendulous, that to-and-fro motion, junk sickness, it arrives by ship. Oven heat of the interior. Who says no? I will not stand for it! My professional reputation is on the line!

Junkie fingers on the neck of the bottle...'Oh, I'm saying smooth, I'm saying spicy, that party ended. Sonofabitch!'...shrill hooker voice in mescaline air...the river slows...'And he wants five bucks! Five!'...whiplash of neon, the bottle descends, red bulb blooming...a junkie dissolves - 'I wanted white, white, I got two quarters'...Yesterday he inspected my file. Took a cab across town, spoke to PK, Max, the Black Salamander, all the usuals. Four p.m. the clock jumps, he's sitting on the other side of the table.

'I make you a price,' he says. His eyes are dead. 'You want to connect?' He slides a single penny across the table. 'Remember Liz in Chi? She died. Zen weightlessness, it was not pretty. For you, I make it.' I remember bedbugs jumping from flowered wallpaper in a fifth floor hotel room. 'But don't make the glass dirty. I can't stand that. The Inspectorate calls, they find a red glass, I'm Pen Indef. Hanging from a door.'

...a young man with switchblade eyes, fingering the till...oil heat comes off at this time...ecstasy, withered hand on the bottleneck, the veins like a map...even the Scandanavians died...

WR (Gesturing ineffectually): 'You want it better? At these prices?'
JUNK BOY (Cynically): 'You have it, you don't sell it.'
WR: 'I have to listen to this? It makes me sad.'

He lights a cigarette, blows smoke coolly towards a ziggurat of black market painkillers.

WR: 'I sell it to you for what it costs. I live on the streets. It's not so bad. Give it air. Don't force it.'

...oven heat...Southern Cross image shattered on black oil settling in a glass...the red bloom swells...spectral mists rising, the smell of tarpaulins and leaves...acid in the back of the throat...puckered...the execution will be at four p.m...a Mercedes-Benz departs, its fender dragging...sanatorium Matron at the wheel, eyes of a cuttlefish...the paint is blistered and coarse...

The party has been cancelled.


Thursday 1 August 2013

Wine in tumblers – in the grip of a trend…

Everywhere I look now, wine is being presented in tumblers. It’s the fashion. So naturally, with my buttoned-up collar and bare ankles to the fore, I’m on the case.

There’s a notion that wine in tumblers reflects something of European simplicity, of cucina povera and down-to-earth authenticity. Most photography of “simple” food, shot against weathered boards or zinc tabletops, now has to be accompanied by wine in tumblers. The Observer Food Monthly (than which one cannot get more fashionable) is full of them. Nigel Slater has fallen prey. 

Our local designer pizza restaurant (for yes, we live in the kind of locale which has one) provides tumblers for its challenging organic wine. And perhaps the biggest influence of all has been Polpo, a small and of course fashionable chain of London restaurants based on Venetian bacaros. 

Some time ago now, CJ wrote a post extolling the virtues of drinking wine from Duralex tumblers. He certainly didn’t claim that drinking wine from tumblers was fashionable. Not because it was or wasn’t, but because CJ does not concern himself with fashion. Nobody looking at CJ would say, now there’s a slave to the catwalk.

So I ignored his enthusiasm, with the magisterial aloofness for which I am renowned. CJ, after all, is a chap for whom a tumbler represents the lesser of wine receptacle evils, descending from a Paris goblet to a mug.

And surely a tumbler is a rubbish glass from which to properly appreciate wine? It is too open, so you don’t get a proper sense of the bouquet. It is too thick for subtle sipping. Its shape means that you can’t really swirl with it; and the lack of a stem means you’re forced to clutch it inelegantly in your fist like a grenade.

Polpo’s owner, Russell Norman, says that serving wine in tumblers reflects a presentation which has “no pretentious flourishes”. Of course, if everyone else uses wine glasses, if a wine glass is the norm, then a tumbler is a pretentious flourish, n'est ce pas? As is trying to pretend that an Amarone Classico, La Giaretta 2008, which Polpo list at £67, is everyday drinking, a wine to be slugged from tumblers.

But Norman goes further in proselytising the use of tumblers. “I strongly recommend you try this at home, too,” he says in his Polpo cookbook

“It gives the wine a lower status than perhaps you are used to if you dine in tableclothed restaurants, but I feel that this is right with humble food shared amongst friends. There is also something tactile and homely about a small peasant glass that you don’t get with an expensive balloon.”

Try this at home, eh?. Well, a few issues first. Point one; it is hard to give our wine at home “a lower status” than it already has. Otherwise Mr Sainsbury would be giving it away.

Point two – can our table still be “tableclothed”, please? Or is it important for a “homely” feel to expose its old stains, and that bit where the veneer got busted off?

Point three – could the food we share with friends not be described as “humble”? I have found that phrases like “terrific” are much more conducive to marital harmony.

I’m afraid I struggle with the idea of laying our dinner-party table with tumblers for wine. If anything, I am trying to raise the status of our wine when we share it with friends, not lower it. And fashionable our friends undoubtedly are, but presented with tumblers, half will have filled them with water before you could say bacaro. No, this “small peasant glass” business only works if your friends are small peasants.

But what if it’s just me and Mrs K, drinking young, bright wine with a simple supper? Suddenly, it begins to make sense.

We do not have the Duralex design classic tumblers. No, we have Pokal tumblers, which are like Duralex tumblers, in that way that things from Ikea are often like something else. But they are squarer, chunkier – more like Nigel Slater's! – and they are 6 for £2. That’s 33p a glass, surely a very povera price. I don’t know if it’s a factor in Polpo, but it’s probably cheaper to smash them than to wash them up.

I fill them politely, halfway. This is not a lot of wine, and means you have to replenish it frequently, but that is itself a satisfying act. And the whole exercise seems to suit a simple lunch with simple wine, at home, with no guests.

And Mrs K agrees. She feels it is “relaxed”, that it’s “a sign that we know what we’re doing”. It reflects, she thinks, the “everydayness” of drinking simple wine at home. All things of which I am in favour.

There is a satisfying degree of purpose about drinking wine from a tumbler. It lowers expectation, it promotes function over form. There is wine which does its job, but doesn’t deserve a wine glass, in the way that a hot dog satisfies a hunger but doesn’t deserve a plate. It seems somehow right to drink it from a tumbler.

And drinking wine out of tumblers gives you one further thing. A talking point.