Thursday 28 November 2013

A forgotten wine – Muscat de Beaumes de Venise

This is about a forgotten wine. Which, in typical Sediment fashion, does not mean an unusual and rare variety which has slipped off the radar of wine connoisseurs. It’s a wine which I was taking to a dinner party – and forgot.

Mrs K and I had an invitation to a country weekend in Devon, with my very good and very longstanding friend BT. (Those really are his initials; I’m not pretending to be friends with the telephone company. However, his house does therefore boast monogrammed junction boxes.) 

Following my principle of giving dessert wines as dinner-party gifts, I was going to take an authentic Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, from Domaine des Bernardins. This is the wine which, back in the 80s, introduced my generation to the idea of dessert wines. Since then, it has been somewhat forgotten. As indeed it was last weekend.

We’re bowling down the motorway, somewhere around Bristol, when Mrs K innocently asks “Did you remember the wine?” Oh. No. It is still in my library, some 120 miles back. 

There is only one possibility. We could stop at a motorway service station, with its little mini-supermarket, and buy another bottle of wine. But the wine I could get would be as obviously desperate as garage flowers, those half-dead bouquets which announce their provenance with a faint aroma of benzene, and the unique presence of purple chrysanthemums. It would be rubbish wine, certainly not dessert wine but some basic, caustic red or acidic white at an inflated, captive audience price.

So I am plunged into one of my typical wine etiquette quandaries. Do I buy, or not buy, some service station rubbish wine? And do I explain, or not explain, the circumstances to mine host? There are four potential outcomes…

I could buy and present a bottle of rubbish wine with no explanation. To an old friend, who knows his wine, and has probably got something really nice planned to accompany dinner? The last time we came down, I brought what I think was a rather nice Tokaji Aszu, 5 puttonyos, not as unctuous as some dessert wines but with a greater breadth of honeyed flavours. He might quite reasonably be expecting something similar. Given rubbish service station wine, his face will fall like a child given socks on Christmas Day.

He is also very familiar with the coverage I have given here to rubbish supermarket wines. So even without an irritant hazard warning on the label, I can’t claim ignorance. I can imagine him thinking, this is the sort of industrial product he writes about – and he brings it to me?

Perhaps I could buy and present a bottle of rubbish wine, and explain what had happened. Fair enough, and possibly better than option one, but… what is he going to do with it? Keep it for cooking? Palm it off on offspring seeking a last-minute bottle to take to a PBAB party? Make me drink it, alone, with my dinner, as punishment? To someone who knows about wine, there is little worse than being lumbered with a bottle of rubbish which they would be loath to drink, ashamed to serve and embarrassed to give away.

So perhaps I should buy no wine, and just say nothing. We have some chocolates and Amaretti for our hostess, so we would not arrive empty-handed. Would he even notice, in all the hustle and bustle, whether we also brought any wine? Well, in similar circumstances, I’m afraid I certainly would. It’s part of that whole doorstep business, hail fellow well met, how was the journey, and here’s something to help things along. It’s like noticing whether a chap has come without his trousers.

My final option – buy no wine, and explain. “I had this really nice, carefully chosen dessert wine, which you would have liked, and we would all have enjoyed – but I’ve forgotten it. I am an idiot. It is currently standing on my library table. You may never get to drink it, because in all honesty I will probably take it to someone else’s dinner party or drink it myself at Christmas. I am a stupid, badly organised man, and although I seem to have remembered my trousers, I have probably forgotten to pack something else, which I will only remember when I come to clean my teeth. Oh…”

You may like a moment to ponder which of these options I pursued.

Well, gentle reader, I chose that final option. I bought no wine, and explained. I felt a fool for five minutes, but then I think the gaff was forgiven.  And we were plied with a succession of splendid wines, amongst which a service station offering would have looked as awkward as a paper cup in a Wedgwood store. As, indeed, would I.

And like a true friend, BT put me through no social embarrassment. Except when I asked if I could have the claret, rather than the Burgundy, to accompany my duck – and he explained that the claret was meant to go with the cheese…

But that’s another story.


Thursday 21 November 2013

Waitrose Romanian Pinot Noir

So the wife and I spent a very engaging few days in Budapest a couple of weeks ago, and while I was there I drank effectively no Hungarian wines at all, apart from a glass of watery Tourist's Red as an accompaniment to a vast and hissing plate of pork and sauerkraut (which latter made our afternoon trip to the Hungarian National Museum a heart-stopping exercise in the management of explosive gases), but instead got outside a good deal of Bitburger beer, which was delicious, but was not wine, not Bull's Blood or Tokaj or anything else. I was a fool to myself. It preyed on my mind all the way home - regret at a wine opportunity shunned, coupled with a desire to make some kind of reparation once I was back at base.

Not that I went out and got hold of any actual Hungarian wine when the chance arose. No, I bought a bottle of Romanian Pinot Noir from Waitrose, on the basis that Transylvania, now a subsection of latter-day Romania, once formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was therefore close enough. Also, I have to admit, I got something of a frisson from the very idea of a Romanian wine, plus it was on offer at £5.59, and it said on the label According to legend, Dionysus the god of wine was born in what is now Romania, which sealed the deal so far as I was concerned. And no, this wan't just the usual riot of self-delusion: Romanian wines get a fair press these days, with value for money, gluggable and great potential leaping out from the internet like hired assassins, quite enough to suggest that £5.59 was about right. Yes, the Ceaușescu years will take a lot of getting over in all aspects of agriculture and commerce, but there were grounds for cautious optimism.

That said, it turned out to be the most unbelievable wine I think I have ever drunk. Worse even than my doomed no-price CDR. I can't begin to describe it: ink, plastic bags, liquorice, aspirin, brake linings, jelly cubes, halitosis and burning straw were all implicated, but even that list is just the tip of the iceberg. It was a red liquid, yes, I remember that, but so is farmers' diesel. I gave it a day to calm down, and it was still unbelievable, only now with an extra, corrupt, Vampiric, edge, plus a top note of London Underground tunnel smell. It was so unbelievable I had to go and buy a second bottle just to make sure. This second time around I was better prepared: anticipating the unbelievable, I found that actually it was no more than unspeakable, a bit like the Secret Name of Ra. But still.

Two things occur to me. First is that, in an unhappy variation on the conventional folly of drinking at home the drink which tasted so good on holiday - with all the sense of rank failure and disappointment which ensues - I have acquired a drink which I didn't drink on holiday, from a country which I didn't visit, in the hope of re-living a pleasurable experience which I have not actually had. Everything about the transaction is therefore wrong, so what did I expect?

Secondly, I have begun to suspect that I am in a covert war with Waitrose, who continue to sucker me in with their bargain basement wines because they only have to appear to cater for the truly budget shopper. They do not actually intend these wines to be in any way drinkable, instead employing them as a virile inducement not to hang around the £5 mark, but move briskly up to something more Waitrose's style, at £9+. I, of course, will not give in to this arm-twisting, but insist on my right to poison myself as and when I please. This is one battle I have no intention of losing, I say under my breath, leaning heavily against the display cabinet: the truth of the matter being that there is absolutely no prospect of my ever winning it, and that it is, to all intents and purposes, already lost.


Thursday 14 November 2013

Cork – some bits of advice

Here’s a thing. I looked at the glass of wine I had poured myself, and it had fragments of cork in it. Which made me a happy man.

Now, we are not talking chunks. We’re not talking about a crumbling old port cork disintegrating into bits the size of molars. We’re talking grains of rice. Neither planks nor motes, but somewhere between the two.

No-one’s going to die from swallowing cork. Swallowing a cork, possibly, as I imagine it could happily plug any orifice from your throat to your anus, with fatal consequences for your through traffic. But not swallowing titchy little bits of cork.

And it’s not going to spoil the wine. Look at it this way – the wine’s been in contact with that cork for years. Anything it was going to do to the wine, it would have done by now. A few minutes more is hardly going to make any difference.

There are some wine buffs who just love it when there are bits of cork in the wine, because they know some ordinary mortal at the table is going to say “Oh, is the wine corked?” Cue the wine snob smirk, and “Ah no, that’s not actually ‘corked’ as such. When you say a wine is ‘corked’, it doesn’t mean it’s got cork in it.” (Oh no, that would be far too obvious for an arcane subject like wine.) 

“When a wine is corked, it means…” and cue as lengthy an explanation of corked wine as a wine buff feels is appropriate and/or impressive enough for their audience. (Wine spoilt by the presence of the chemical TCA, usually transferred from the cork, will do for me.)

But then someone says “Oh, fair enough. So what do you wine experts call it when you have bits of cork in your wine?” And your wine buff haws and hems and says “Well, we generally refer to that as, er, having bits of cork in your wine.”

I’ve never seen an issue with cork fragments myself. If they’re small, you can ignore them; if they’re slightly bigger, you can swirl them up onto the side of the glass. And if they’re big, you can just hoick them out with your finger.

Why do people have a problem with this? Are they concerned about getting wine on their fingers? Or fingers in their wine?

If people are happy holding lamb cutlets, spare ribs and the limbs of small birds, which deposit grease all over your digits, why would they baulk at getting wine on their fingers? And if they’re happy touching their bread, why do they baulk at their fingers touching their wine?

Yet to comfort all fastidious drinkers, there was a surprisingly popular post doing the rounds a fortnight or so ago which recommended that you remove fragments of cork from your wine with a drinking straw, using it as a kind of pipette. Put the straw over the fragment, your finger over the other end of the straw (to create a vacuum) and lift. Voila.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have straws at my dining table. I might if a small child were present, but I would rather put my finger in my wine than borrow the straw of a juice-dribbling toddler. 

If in a restaurant, I would strongly suggest not requesting the two items together as a precautionary tactic. You would certainly get a funny look in the dining rooms of St James’s asking for “A bottle of Lynch-Bages 89 and a straw, please.”

Indeed, if you’re going to introduce a special cork-fragment-removing implement to the table, why not a pair of shiny tweezers rather than a straw? Much more in keeping with the cutlery. And perhaps from that manufacturer whose name never ceases to amuse me, Tweezerman, as if there is a superhero whose threat to baddies consists of “Tell me where the money is, or I’ll tweeze you so badly…”

But…far from being a problem, I saw the fragments in my own wine as a positive thing. 

Because they reminded me that this bottle had had a cork. Not a depressingly functional screwcap. Nor that hideous kind of flesh-coloured plastic bung which tries to impersonate a cork but looks more like a medical appliance. No, the presence of cork in my wine reminded me that I had actually opened a proper bottle of Bordeaux; Chateau Fougere La Noble 2009

So of course it had a cork. What I was about to drink was not industrialised, branded and bargained, grubbed up from the bottom shelf amongst the passing footwear and trolley wheels. Those little floating bits presaged a traditional, authentic, chateau-bottled wine.

And indeed it was, a proper Classics master of a claret; a little stern and rigid at first, always reminding us of the importance of structure, but coming on with smoothness, warmth and honesty, and leaving behind a woody, smoky trail. 

So I was entitled to feel happy. Fragments of cork in your wine are not a problem. And if they announce an authentic, traditional wine experience like that, then they’re alright by me. Float, float on.


Thursday 7 November 2013

Terms of Reference - M & S Côtes du Rhône

So the International Federation of Wine Critics has just finished its deliberations over which terms are to be internationally approved when it comes to written wine appreciation, and which are on the way out: and their recommendations (in the forthcoming Oenophile Glossary) make fascinating reading for anyone interested in wine and wine writing.

This year, in an effort to drag wine criticism firmly into the twenty-first century, there's an emphasis on modern technology and the contemporary arts. Thus, we find among the new verbal inclusions, Tipping point, Bruschetta tendencies, Aspect ratio, Ringtone, Undercoat, Mosh pit and Kiera Knightley - this last to denote a wine, usually white, which looks fantastic in the bottle but turns out to be a bit on the thin side. Among the terms being phased out, or deprecated, to use the software developer's jargon, are Woody, Chewy, Jammy and, thank God, Minerality. Debate still rages over the proposed replacement of Structure by Armature: both are currently permissible, although I have my doubts that Armature will prove sufficiently of the now to gain traction. I expect it to be replaced in the near future either by Strategy or Floorplan, but we shall see.

Peach will be phased out completely by 2015, to be replaced by New car smell; while Gooseberry will make way for Romanian persimmon - a relief to all of us who have no idea what a gooseberry actually tastes like; while Raspberry, plum, blackcurrant and, indeed, all other soft fruits will be harmonised into the single term Melbury for the sake of clarity and simplicity. In a couple of nods to Hollywood, Blood pack will be used to denote any of those repulsive 15% or more Californian reds, while Russell Crowe will be used for all other heavy-hitting New World wines, including Australian Shiraz and Argentinian Malbec. Angular is both in and out, while further talks are being held on the future of Robust. At the same time, a working party is looking into Interface, Mellow, Chupa Chups, Personality and Narrative-driven, and will report early in the new year.

What else are we saying goodbye to? Well, Velvety has the executioner's axe hanging over it, as does Finesse. Assuming they're both fully decommissioned by 2016, expect to see Build quality step in, as a stimulant to what will by then be a declining Chinese market. And get used to living without that old favourite, Approachable. This will be broken up into three new categories: Nice, Businesslike and Sexy.

It's a lot to take in, but in a mood of experimentation I decided to try out some of the new vocabulary on a bottle of M & S Côtes du Rhône (£5.79), to see how it feels in practice. Nice bottle, by the way, heritage label and a cork for sheer class, enough even for PK, but after that? Not much in the way of a ringtone, some Melbury™ notes, but then a pretty short, low-tannins, narrative arc, ending in a quick mosh pit of acidity. Yes, a couple of weeks ago I was at a tasting of some 2011 Bordeaux which ran the gamut from fence paint to Aubusson tapestry (the Lynch Bages I would have taken home there and then), so the old CDR suffers in comparison when similarly stress-tested, and anyway what do I expect for just over a fiver? It's a Kiera Knightley, as it turns out, with very much a 4:3 aspect ratio, but it passes the time.

A strange feeling, doing without the soft fruits and the Approachable. And one reaches instinctively for the tannins, whether one needs to or not. But overall, I like the way things are going. It's fresh, it's distinctive, it's nicely demotic. Yes, a part of me hankers after Finesse and Blackcurrant - but then a part of me still hankers after that elegant diction my late Father used to employ when talking about wine: good old Edwardian terms such as chétif, gusto, blancmange, gutta-percha and inner sensorium. Still. We must move on and embrace the future: autres temps, autres mœurs.