Thursday 26 September 2013

I Am Not Worthy: 2007 Chorey-les-Beaune

So after a succession of small accidents, I end up in full legal possession of six bottles of 2007 Chorey-les-Beaune from the house of Joseph Drouhin, without paying for any of them. 'This is a good day,' I tell myself. 'Half a case of flash-looking Burgundy!' Then I add, 'But unexpected riches brings with them responsibility. This Chorey-les-Beaune is in the nature of a sacred trust, especially with it being posh and free and everything.' In other words, I must find out something about it, show due diligence, understand what it is I'm drinking, before knocking it off in front of a Mad Men re-run.

First stop is PK, who gets agitated enough to announce that it 'Could be bloody good', which is all the encouragement I need. After that, it's off to Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine: this, alarmingly, makes no mention of Chorey-les-Beaune, so I turn to the Internet, which, even more alarmingly, tends to mark it down as one of the smaller, thinner, less interesting, interpretations of a Côte de Beaune, also noting that the (small) commune is devoid of any Premiers or Grands Crus.

I am now starting to look a gift horse in the mouth and wonder if the cork, the vintage, the swank label, the reputable wine-maker's name, are not guarantors of quality after all, but false friends, in which case I am the proud possessor of nothing more than half a case of showy dreck.

On the other hand: the actual 2007 Chorey-les-Beaune does pick up a few online reviews, and these are more hopeful. Jancis Robinson gives it 16 out of 20, which apparently makes it 'distinguished', while other critics discourse (mutedly enough) about its 'nicely weighted fruit', how it 'hits the Burgundy spot', how it possesses 'light redolent soft red fruits', and so on. What most are agreed on, is that it is a Pinot Noir and that it needs to be open for at least half an hour, better yet an hour, before consumption.

I now experience a tremendous girding of loins and raising of expectations as I leave my comfort zone (I had a couple of bottles of Tesco's Vega Roja, £4.49 a bottle, the other day, and it was a hoot from start to finish) and tackle this proper wine with all due piety. Turns out the cork has been spot-welded to the bottle, so there are some anxious moments as I fight with it, but it emerges at last, and in my triumph at getting the thing out, I pour out a glass of the intriguingly pale cherry liquid and immediately start drinking.

And yes, straight from the bottle, I'm getting some oil refinery, some nail salon, and it's so scary I put the glass down with an audible cry and turn my back on it for a good forty-five minutes. But after that: a nice bit of interplay between tannins and acidity, curious suggestion of cloves, a bit of turmeric, hints of antiquarian bookshop, ending with a lingering finish in which some kind of berry makes a showing. Not bad - but also, I announce to no-one, in a lordly fashion, a bit wan? As if it spends its days seated on a low divan, saying, Just a cup a tea, please, and a slice of dry toast, nothing more. This too chimes with what the Internet has been saying, about thinness and lack of grunt, but there it is. Too late, now.

Underwhelmed, I eventually get to the end of the bottle and a couple of days later tuck into a Triade red which I've had good times with before: perceiving it to be a nice, in-the-moment kind of grog, and quite sophisticated by my standards. Only now, subsequent to the donnish Chorey-les-Beaune, it comes over as much more violently uncouth, a wine that you might try and avoid making eye contact with on the last train home - and this is a problem, not least because it suggests that a single bottle of red Burgundy has somehow transfigured my palate, rebuilt it in such a way that an old favourite has suddenly become insufferable. 'What the hell?' I demand of the Triade, now like a comedian who's not funny any more.

And sure enough, I lurch through the Triade, and a couple of days later return to the Chorey-les-Beaune with a sigh of exasperated relief. A bit thin, but also a bit grown-up.

Well, isn't that meant to be a good thing? A sign that even at this late stage, it's possible to respond to new subtleties and bring on new tastes? No: I can get a Triade for a under £6 a bottle on offer, if I keep my head. Chorey-les-Beaune, whatever the vintage, is £15 and rising. I still possess four and a half bottles of the stuff. After that, it's back to the bottom shelf. Tricky. If I am to be true to the sacred trust I have burdened myself with, then self-denial must be my watchword. Which would be a first.


Thursday 19 September 2013

Turning on the box

In the past, I’ve been scathing about wine in boxes. Wine in a box? Is that like cigars in a bottle?

So it’s ironic that, just a week after CJ returned from France with three wines in boxes, I found myself buying one from Sainsbury's. This is Caja Roja, and the first thing to say is that it’s not a Rioja. An easy mistake to make, given its name.

An even easier mistake would be to think that it is the almost identical Carta Roja, a rather good Jumilla Monastrell/Syrah which has picked up a couple of awards, and which is frequently “offered” by Sainsbury for just under a fiver.

These two bafflingly similar products are shown in the picture. The boxed Caja Roja – and yes, caja does translate as ‘box’ – is, in fact, a completely different, Monastrell/Tempranillo blend. Its perfectly drinkable, bright, slightly spicy product does not have the added weight and warmth (and, therefore, awards) of the bottled Carta Roja. With its virtually identical labelling, lettering, colouring…

It’s surely hard to imagine that the two could be confused by a shopper, used to dealing in their supermarket dash with the contest between too much choice and too little time.

But believe me, lured by the prospect of a bargain, they can.

In a special offer, this box had been reduced by Sainsbury’s from £16 to £12. That’s 2.25 litres, or three bottles’ worth, for £12. It’s the cheapest drinkable wine I have encountered in the UK. It’s not the rather superior Carta Roja – but it’s £4 a bottle. An irresistible bargain. Only it’s in a box.

Now on the whole, I have resisted wine in a box. It is, as they say, convenient. It is also, as they say, uncouth. And I do so wish to be couth.

Like many purchasers, I argued to myself that a wine box would be a convenient way of drinking the odd glass, and cooking with the odd squirt, while keeping the rest fresh. The key word here being ‘convenient’.

Just a splash of wine in these lentils? Here it is, with its own ‘convenient’ tap, just as if red wine has been plumbed into the kitchen. A little glass of something with supper? Here again. Pour just as much as you like, and the box will stay fresh. It’s so ‘convenient’.

But is convenience necessarily a good thing? Velcro is more convenient than buttons, but you don’t see much of it on Savile Row.

Wine boxes are not designed for the dining table. They may well offer ‘convenience’, but you wouldn’t serve convenience food to your guests.

You also have to hoist wine boxes above glass height, always an ungainly maneouvre. It’s reminiscent of lifting dumbbells, something else not recommended over a laden dining table.

So unlike a magnum of wine, which everyone assumes you are sharing with friends, a box is something people assume you are drinking in privacy. A box is like announcing personal profligate consumption, the equivalent of the giant airport bar of Toblerone.

Yes, you can use your extensive collection of pichets and carafes to disguise your embarrassing secret. But that’s not ‘convenient’, is it. Soon you find yourself tiptoeing back into the kitchen between courses or during ad breaks, directly refilling glass after glass. With no visible record of your consumption.

How long before you’re just passing through the kitchen, work to do, clock ticking, stressed out like a cat passing Crufts. Can you be bothered to make a mid-morning coffee? Here, over here, calls the little box on the worktop. Who’s to know? And hey, if we’re talking convenience, why bother dirtying a glass? We’ve all drunk water directly from a tap…

It’s a downward path. In its worse case, I recall drinking with someone who, when the flow began to falter, pulled the box apart and, determined to get every last drop, actually wrung out the foil bag inside.

And in the end, the box goes into the recycling, where it is far more troublesome than a straightforward glass bottle, because who’s prepared to break it down into its constituent elements of cardboard, foil and plastic? It sits there whole, like a squat badge of shame, announcing to the neighbours your consumption, your poverty and your convenience-driven laziness.

A single bottle of cheap wine might be considered desperation. An entire box of it suggests destitution.

And ask yourself this. If boxes are so good, how come it’s only cheap wines which are in them?

So, swings and roundabouts. On the swings, it’s astonishingly cheap, perfectly drinkable, and with the added ‘convenience’ of staying fresh. On the roundabouts, it’s clumsy, ugly and suggests something dubious about your drinking.

Me? I’m on the climbing frame.


Thursday 12 September 2013

Ventoux In A Box Creates Headaches For London-Based Simpleton

So, filled with excitement from our adventures in Corsica, we make our way to the French mainland to stay with our pals in the Ventoux region. Here we discover to our horror that their house in the hills is even more eye-wateringly beautiful than the last time we were there, in fact is so glamorous that we wonder if we shouldn't sleep in the car rather than attempt to live up to the bedding in the spare room.

Still. After a day or so we have recovered enough from the shock to be able to loll around the pool and spend a couple of hours over lunch and drink our aperitifs on the upper terrace and generally kid ourselves that it wouldn't have taken that much effort on our part to achieve the same sun-drenched perfection, we just had different priorities. Then, to add to my bliss, if that were possible, our host Allan says that if I want to buy a quantity of local grog, he'll take it back to England for me in his luxury shooting brake.

Giggling with anticipation, I head straight down to the nearest cave, spending only an hour wandering around the adorable tourist honeypot townlet in which it is situated before actually going in to choose the drink. Which means that I am so surfeited with well-being by the time I enter the cave, I'm not really in a position to deal with the profusion of wines which suddenly fills my vision.

All I want is a medium BiB (as in Bag-in-Box as the French call them, i.e. a no-nonsense working man's wine box) of red, another of rosé and a third of white. But (a) I am initially thrown by the luscious high-end Ventoux bottles parked at the entrance and (b) am subsequently thrown by the presence of two elfin and hypnotically French young women, wrestling with a pallet of BiBs in exactly that dingy corner where the cheap grog lives. As I consequence, I gather up two whites and a red instead of a red, white and pink, stagger over to the check-out and only discover what I've done ten days later when Allan drops them off.

My bad, as they say, but since the stuff works out at slightly less than €3 a litre, I can't really complain. But what exactly is it? One 5 litre container owns up to nothing more specific than White Ventoux, plus instructions for getting at the tap. The red, similarly, is just AOC Ventoux Rouge 2012. Only the other white, the one bought in error, fesses up to anything: Viognier Chardonnay 2012 it says. This is the one, at any rate, which I cram into the fridge, having sawn the top off the box to get it to fit. The red I place on top of the wine rack, no more than half a metre from my elbow while I eat. 

I now have more cheap drink at my immediate disposal than I have ever had in my life. I could drink myself witless every night if I wanted to. Things could not be much better.

Except that, like the stooge in a morality tale, I find myself increasingly beleaguered by the superabundance of my own supplies. The red is pretty much as I hoped for, with that lightness and hint of austerity I associate with Ventoux; the white, on the other hand, gives me mild tinnitus plus a sense of existential doom. Why? It should be fine. I force myself to drink more, in order to desensitise my tastebuds. Over time it does seem to become less industrial; perhaps as it degrades in its BiB (four weeks is the maximum time you've got to drink it, according to the box). But it is a grim, attritional business.

But then (God help us) this raises another, bigger question: how much am I drinking? I pour a generous splash into my faithful Duralex tumbler, consume it, pour another, consume it, pour another, I mean there are 5 litres in there, or there were, and the cardboard is opaque, so in some ways it's a bottomless vat of wine, but in another way it's a nightmare, in which I entirely lose count of how many glasses I've poured myself, and only know that at the end of the evening I feel eighty years old and as if my mouth has been pressed into service as a photographer's developing tray.

After several days of this, I work out that what I need is a pichet, like PK's, into which I can pour a metered quantity of drink. A little glass jug catches my eye. I shall find out how much it holds, then determine how much 40 cl of wine looks like when poured into it, then use that as my guide. That way, I shall not only retain a measure of self-control at supper time, I shall make my booze last longer.

I take the jug down from the shelf. It looks a bit dusty. There is a small crack next to the handle. My wife, who happens to be passing, says, 'You know we use that to put flowers in, don't you?'

'Yes,' I say, with a pathetic timbre in my voice. 'But I have my dignity to think of.'

And indeed, that evening I sit there full of bourgeois self-importance with my little jug of wine, and everything works according to plan, even though the wine is not only light and austere, but oddly nuanced with a flavour of dust. Only another week to go, I reckon.


Thursday 5 September 2013

A pichet of wine – does a little go a long way?

This is my pichet. There are many like it, but this one is mine. For the uninitiated – and those who haven't looked at the photo – it is like a carafe, but smaller. Much smaller.

I recently enjoyed a restaurant pre-theatre supper with my own pichet of red wine – pouring when I liked, pacing my consumption, and remaining awake throughout the performance it preceded. (That’s the theatre, not the dessert.) So I thought I might try using one at home, to see if it had a similarly civilising effect upon drinking alone.

For the pichet is a selfish device. It is clearly designed for solo drinking. It contains just 250ml of wine, a third of a bottle, a quantity described by Mrs K as “quite sufficient” and by me as “Thanks, that sample was fine, can I have the rest now, please?”

Whether 250ml is a suitable amount of wine to drink with one’s meal is clearly a matter for debate. Some see food and drink working in a kind of quantitative harmony; others view the food as essentially providing ballast for some serious drinking.

Some bars and restaurants provide a glass of wine which is just 175ml; and one Italian in Covent Garden says on its list that “A 125ml glass of wine is available on request,” an absurdly small amount which might just accompany one of those Toytown minimalist starters, but would be absorbed by two mouthfuls of toad in the hole. I particularly like the way it’s “available on request”, confirming that, like an inflatable cushion, it’s something which you’re slightly embarrassed to ask for in public. 125ml is not drinking, it’s salivating. 

I have always been a great fan myself of the half-bottle (375ml) for a meal. The problem is that half bottles are usually relatively expensive. Take The Wine Society’s claret, for example; £6.25 a bottle, £4.25 a half bottle. Completely understandable, given packaging, transport and all the other factors which remain the same, but you don’t have to be Einstein to work out that you’re better off at home buying a full bottle and drinking it in two halves.

(Which is exactly what I do when Chelsea are on TV – buy a full bottle and drink it in two halves…) 

Unfortunately you do have to be Einstein to work out when you’re halfway down a full bottle. Somehow, what you were convinced was half a bottle, that you sadly put aside over the closing credits of the News at Ten, always turns out to be rather less than half a bottle at dinner time the next night. I assume it’s something to do with quantum physics and measurement. The second half of a bottle never quite is.

If it was just a matter of measurement, you could get a stonking great glass, slosh in 375ml of wine, and get stuck in. But not a glass filled to the top; or else what Keats described as “beaded bubbles winking at the brim” will inevitably be winking their way past that brim and down over the tablecloth. There must be a happy relationship between the wine and the air within a glass, which not only allows for swirling and aeration, but also accommodates the clumsy amongst us, and acknowledges that the greater the quantity of wine in one’s stomach, the greater the quantity of ham in one’s fist.

And the best way of maintaining that ideal quantity of wine in a glass is by topping it up, the act of pouring, which punctuates civilised eating and drinking like chapter headings in a novel. I somehow feel that the more often you pour, the more you feel you’ve drunk, as if the experience has been refreshed along with your glass. It’s pouring from my pichet which I really enjoy; assessing, measuring, pacing each pour, the amount remaining clearly visible (unlike a bottle), and its solo character allowing you complete control, without intervention by waiter or wife. Pouring is one of those things which lifts supper alone above a simple act of refuelling. Better by far the glass modestly filled and frequently topped up, than the large one set before you like both a challenge and a constraint.

But while we’re on the matter of constraint… It’s a depressing fact that my pichet’s 250ml of wine, or 3.3 units, is precisely the daily NHS alcohol limit for menNow, I have been deeply suspicious of these alcohol limits, ever since it was revealed that their original calculation, rather like a WMD dossier, was based on nothing more than “a sort of intelligent guess”. However, I put it out there for what it’s worth; if you use a pichet, you can fill it, look at it and think, well, according to the NHS, that’s my lot. Look on, ye mighty, and despair.

Finally, the answers to some key questions:

No; thanks to the shape of this pichet, if you use it for white wine, it does not look too much like a urine sample.

No; even if I may look like one, when I’m sitting here alone, pouring out my own wine in this manner, I do not feel like a tosser.

Yes; it does create more washing-up.