Monday 23 December 2013

Season's Greetings from Sediment!

We wish all our subscribers, readers and visitors a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

May your glasses be more than half-full throughout this festive season.

We will be back in January, livers permitting.



Thursday 19 December 2013

Loire Red: With Extra Fish

So we're having dinner with some people and our host, looking abundantly pleased with himself, announces that not only has he recreated for us a meal he recently enjoyed in a restaurant in France - using salmon, admittedly, instead of proper sea bream on account of the fillets of sea bream you get over here being the size and thickness of a stamp hinge - but that to accompany it, we're all going to drink red wine. I am thrilled and slightly scared, as if potholing or strip poker have suddenly made it onto the menu. But I feign calm, while the host explains his reasoning.

'It's the perfect match,' says the host. 'It's not like a red at all.'

We're talking Loire, as it happens, and a Loire red - in this case, an apparently standalone Cabernet Franc - served with an intimation of the fridge about it, appears right in front of me like a visitor from another planet.

Well, this is one of those moments. This is on a par with serving Sauternes with foie gras (pretty much a waste of two good ingredients); or sticking a dash of red wine into a Bloody Mary (surprisingly affirmative); or drinking cider with asparagus like the late Sir Oswald Mosley (never tried it); or serving port and melon (just crappy, let's be clear); or Guinness and oysters (Guinness yes, oysters no). Even chilled red wine tout court makes me a bit edgy. I mean, it's just food and drink, it's not an assault on my belief system. But it assumes a kind of terrible unreasonable intensity, as if I might be found to be a lesser person (I'm as neurotically craven as PK, here) for not appreciating red wine with fish.

So I push in a forkful of salmon and take a sip of the Cabernet Franc. At this point the host waves his hands and says, loudly, 'The mash is infused with garlic.'

This leads the bloke opposite me - who is actually a French economist - suddenly to advance the proposition that restaurants in provincial/suburban France are now uniformly awful because the women who used to run them have all gone off for better-paid jobs in other industries. 'Without the women, they're nothing,' he seethes.
'I think you'll like the aniseed fragrances in the fennel,' the host adds, before going on to do an impersonation of Kevin Pietersen, the South African-born cricketer.
'I am working on a memoir of my parents,' the woman next to me says. 'I intend to tell the truth.'
'France has lost its way. The whole country has lost its way,' the French economist says.
'It was a wonderful restaurant,' the host shouts, 'they had sea bream, you see.'
'They were very unhappy together,' the woman next to me says.
'Geoffrey, you're shouting,' says the host's wife.

We take a run at the food.

'I think the salmon's delicious,' my wife ventures.
'And then we filled the car with Loire reds,' the host goes on.
'It's important not to disguise the truth.'
'And of course, London is now France's sixth-largest city.'
'Stop shouting, Geoffrey.'
'In Paris, you can still eat well. Toulouse, also.'
'They separated while I was still young,' the woman next to me says.

Our host knocks over the butter.

'Have I done my Kevin Pietersen?'
'He shouts like this when he's had too much wine.'
'The potato's very good.'
'It's infused with garlic.'
'Actually, we had a huge lunch before we came here. I can't eat all this.'
'My name's Kevin Pietersen.'
'I'm not trying for a publisher.'

'So look - ' the host turns unexpectedly to me - 'what did you think of that red? With the fish? It was good, wasn't it?'

I look at the bottle of Loire Red. It is empty. I have no recollection of drinking any of it. That's how unassuming it must be, I think to myself. So unassuming that you can drink it with fish and not turn a hair; probably cornflakes, too. No wonder they don't make a big deal out of Cabernet Franc.

'It was great,' I say. 'Really good with the fish.'


Thursday 12 December 2013

Ten green bottles. Or two. Maybe six. No, four. Twelve?

You read about a particular wine. You track it down to some obscure merchant on the other side of the city. You can’t order a single bottle, so you have to go to the shop. Or you find yourself on a trip to somewhere or other, and you pop into a local wine merchant, just to browse (hem, hem). 

And there it is on the shelf, the label appealing, the price enticing and the assistant flattering – “Oh yes sir, splendid choice, hard to find that one, just at its best right now…” – in that awful manner that reminds one of Uriah Heep.

So, from the green bottles on that wall, how many do you buy?

Better buy just one bottle. To begin with. To see how it tastes. If a single bottle is duff, you’re in the clear. You can pass a taste to your nearest and dearest, who will grimace; whereupon you can say “No, I thought not, won’t get any more of that,” and promptly finish the rest of the bottle. On sufferance, of course. Waste not, want not. And without the problem of a further stash in the cellar which you would have to fob off somewhere.

But what if it’s really good? In that (sadly, in my experience, unlikely) event, you’re then annoyed that you haven’t got more of it. 

So better buy two bottles. The first one to taste, by yourself, so that you know whether or not the second one is good to serve. It’s as if that second bottle gives you an excuse to drink the first alone, without sharing it – or, as it may be preferable to say, without inflicting it upon those you care about. And if it’s bad, you’ve only got another single bottle to offload by nefarious means.

But again, what if the first bottle’s good? Then you’re back in the position of having a single good bottle, which is a bit Johnny No-Mates. I can’t remember a single bottle seeing a friend and me through an evening. In fact, I can’t remember a single bottle seeing a friend and me through a lunch.

So better buy three bottles. One to taste by yourself, just to check, and then a brace to share. And if you think a bottle a head is a bit much, may I remind you of the great philosopher Emmanuel Kant, known primarily for his rather sombre Critique of Pure Reason. It was said of Kant’s dinner parties (as quoted in our Wining & Dining e-book, one of The Guardian’s best drink books of 2013) that “Before each guest was placed a pint bottle of red wine and a pint bottle of white”. Hence 75cl a head sounds purely reasonable to me.

So better buy four bottles. Because how many usually sit around your table? Four is getting somewhere serious. Four’s a party. Although… four also means you might be tempted to dip in for a bottle yourself, on a lonely evening. Because how long can you wait for a party?

There’s always something sad, as well as pleasurable, about drinking your stock; as George Saintsbury says in his Notes on a Cellar-Book, “it was rather a ‘fearful joy’ to take a bottle of it from the dwindling company”. From three or four bottles you’d notice – but not from five or six. And the recent flurry of 25% discount offers were on six bottles or more. If you’re going to buy four bottles anyway, and it means you get a 25% discount plus a bottle or two for spare, you may as well move up to the half dozen, no?

So better buy six bottles. 

More and more bottles are being sold in small cases of six. Actually, I’m surprised given decimalisation, and given the Euro, and given the French, that the chateaux didn’t leap upon any opportunity to rationalise the contents of a full case to ten bottles, citing metric calculations as some sort of justification, while of course keeping the price the same. After all, how many things do we still buy by the dozen? Apart from bakers?

But if you’re buying from merchants, the proper price (to say nothing of free delivery) requires the traditional case purchase of twelve bottles. And let’s all be honest here, the “real” price of wine is that twelve bottle price. It’s not that they offer a reduction by the case – they actually impose an increase by the single bottle. If you want to get your wine at the proper price, and if you’re going to get the car out…

Better buy twelve bottles.

Of course, a case is a lot of wine to buy in one go. (Or so Mrs K tells me.) Especially if you’re not sure how it tastes. An entire case of terrible wine is an awful thing (as CJ discovered, when he laboured to get rid of one). Who are these people who buy entire cases of completely unknown wines from mail order companies, on the advice and tasting notes of…the mail order companies? Far be it from me to say such people have more money than sense, but they clearly have more money than me.

Better buy just one bottle first. To begin with. To see how it tastes.

But haven’t we been here before…?


Thursday 5 December 2013

Make Your Own Wine: Waitrose Champteloup Chardonnay

So I acquire this bottle of ChampteloupChardonnay for £5 or £6 on special offer, and to my amazement - so much to my amazement it almost feels like chagrin - I find that it's incredibly tasty (nicely structured, a bit of richness but without losing, yes, a degree of formal elegance, this concept made tangible by virtue of the wine being presented in one of those thoughtfully slim-hipped bottles such as I used to buy Muscadet sur lie in), tasty to the extent that I go straight out and buy another bottle. This is delicious, too. And there my wine week ends, or it does until I see a news item about a guy in California who has invented a domestic-scale, automated wine maker, called a WinePod.

What does this WinePod do? Apparently you tip a quantity of grapes into the Pod, set the controls, and wait. Cunningly-crafted software tells you what's going on inside the Pod and what interventions might be needed. A couple of months later, you pour out forty-eight bottles of drinkable wine. The WinePod™ will press, monitor, ferment, age and ultimately produce a classic vintage of your design. Yes, yours, it says on the website. The device has been likened to a kitchen bread maker in its simplicity and ease of use. It even looks like a giant stainless steel wine glass, thus conflating the means and the end in a way which heroically anticipates cows shaped like milk bottles and chickens with peel-off barcoded wings. It costs (correct me if I'm wrong) something over $6000, which includes the Winecoach software but not the grapes.

I cannot decide if the WinePod™ is quite a good thing or a threat to the totality of civilisation. Because if you think about all the home-made alcoholic drinks you've consumed in the past, what sensations are evoked? Cautious gratitude? Moist-eyed nostalgia? Or dread?

We've all drunk teenagers' homebrew for its narcotic value and the interesting texture of the sludge at the bottom, but after that? A friend of ours makes, according to my wife, a pretty nice cider, but then you've got to like cider and in any normal conditions I'd rather drink my own bathwater. On the other hand, my father-in-law used to make a kind of Vinho Verde from the vines he cultivated in his greenhouse - using the tendrils, the bits of stalk and leaf, the pebble-like grapes, plus all the spiders which had settled there over the summer months. Spider wine it was sometimes known as, and it wasn't bad: tart, p├ętillant, but with a good colour and a positive attitude. But that was a happy accident. All other home-created drinks have been uniformly awful, and I include among these the sloe gin we cobbled together some years ago - which was just sloes, sugar and supermarket gin, I mean, how bad could it have been? Painfully bad as it happened, bad enough for me to throw down the sink with a look of bleached horror, like a walk-on in The Thing.

Which is as much as to say, what chance does a serious drinker stand with the WinePod™? I mean, the website looks great, it gives off an air of magisterial competence, and after about nine or ten pressings the Pod will have amortised its initial costs pretty well. But even allowing for all this, there is no getting away from the fact that making wine yourself is like building a kit car or taking part in amateur theatricals: you don't do it for other people to enjoy, you do it so you can enjoy the thrilling proximity between your own efforts and what those efforts would look like if they were excuted properly. It is asymptotic, because however good you get, you can never reach that final condition of sweet professional achievement which is paradoxically at the heart of every DIY adventure. Put it another way: in order to succeed, the WinePod™ must, fundamentally, fail.

Which brings me back (ha!) to my Champteloup Chardonnay, of which I could buy maybe one thousand bottles before it cost me more than a WinePod™ + shipping costs + grapes + electricity + bottles and corks. To say nothing of the heartache and the sense of futility and the blurred vision and the terrible, terrible, indigestion which would be my inevitable reward if I had one. Need I say more? That on this occasion, the easy thing - not to buy a WinePod™ - is also the correct thing? No, I don't think I do.