Thursday 30 January 2014

So: Viña Edmara, Chilean Pinot Noir

So PK and I are having a quiet drink in a bar: the drink being a Chilean Viña Edmara Pinot Noir which comes over the counter at something more than £20 a bottle, a bit high-end for me, but, on the other hand, is firm, fruity and nicely-made. We begin talking earnest rubbish, our usual approach. PK is speculating on what a TV series of Sediment would look like.

'We'd start with a long shot of us arriving in a car outside a château in brilliant sunshine, in high summer. The car would be that comedy car, the one that looks like an upside-down wine glass. You'd see it in long shot, this upside-down wine glass crossing the lush countryside of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It'd be a great shot. Then we'd get out.'
'What happens after that?' I ask.
'Well. We'd get out. And then we'd drink some wine.'

We argue about how scripted such a series could possibly be, given that after two glasses of wine I start to sound like a younger, stupider, Fred Emney, while PK, also after two, will pick fights with everybody and everything, including, presumably, the producer.

I then remember what I had on my mind in the first place.

'I bought a router for my computer on the internet,' I say, chimingly, 'and they sent it with a £50 voucher for Virgin Wines. So I bought a case. Was that a stupid thing to do?'
'Hard to say,' PK says.
'I mean, the wines were all priced between £7 and £8 a bottle, so I ended up paying £56. Which included £8 for the delivery.'
'Well, are the wines on sale generally for £8?'
'They are on the Virgin website.'
'But not anywhere else?'
'Well. Not that I could see. Where I looked. To be frank.'

PK purses his lips meaningfully, while I come to terms with the unhappy realisation that perhaps my bargain haul is not quite the bargain I at first took it to be.

'Also,' I say, getting deeper into trouble, 'they sent me an email asking me how I rated the wines, and the wines haven't arrived. They said they were passionate about great value wines and fantastic service. They wanted me to rate my wines and make a real difference.'
'Yeah, right,' says PK.
'They also said that if I ordered before 4 pm, the wine should be with me as soon as last friday. That was six days ago.'
'I see,' says PK.

We then discuss the widely-canvassed notion that nearly all wine clubs and mail-order firms, apart from The Wine Society, operate out of one place, a huge warehouse in Theale on the M4 motorway near Reading. And that only the truly credulous wine buyer believes there to be any substantial difference between these competing online and mail-order entities. This does not make me any more sanguine.

'So maybe I should have passed on the £50 offer? Or gone to Laithwaites?'
'It could be a great offer.'
'But I won't know until I've tried the wines.'
'Which haven't arrived from Theale.'
'If it is Theale.'
'Maybe I should send them an email.'

I stare at my Viña Edmara Pinot Noir, which is at least in front of me in a tangible glass. I can feel PK's respect for me, never sky-high at the best of times, diminishing further, until it is no bigger than a blade of grass in a supermarket car park.

Then he remembers what he had on his mind.

'You know you always start your pieces with so, the word so?' he asks.
'Yes. It's to indicate to anyone reading the piece that I wrote it, not you. Because some people think we're actually the same person. So proves that we're not.'

PK takes a drink. There is a brief silence.

'I'm not sure I really like it,' he says.
'Oh,' I say.
'Just saying,' he says.
'So?' I say.


Thursday 23 January 2014

Gift aid: a guide to giving wine to an aficionado

A week or so ago, a friend came round for lunch. Alan brought with him a nice bottle of wine, but he handed it over with a look of slight concern.

“I always worry about bringing wine round to you,” he said apologetically. “Because you write about it, and so on. 

“But I thought this one should be okay, because it’s got string on it.”

Now, this does not bode well. Even ignoring for a moment the ‘string’ aspect, to which we shall return, this is not good. If my guests feel daunted by bringing round wine, one of my key sources of cellar replenishment may dry up. Guests might start bringing me something I’m not interested in, like golf balls or piano wire. 

Wine is a gift horse I never look in the mouth, even if I intend putting it into mine. The last thing I want is for my friends to be worried about it. But is there an issue with giving a bottle of wine to someone who’s interested in it?

I can imagine the problem. Let’s suppose for a moment you were visiting someone who was a chocolate aficionado, someone who writes about chocolate, hoards chocolate, is a member of the Chocolate Society, etc. You yourself, however, know nothing about chocolate; you think that Green & Black looks expensive, and the last chocolate you actually ate was a foil-wrapped bunny.

Are you going to take this aficionado a box of Milk Tray from the supermarket? Or that chocolate someone gave you as a present, which you never got round to opening? What about a box which is Belgian, because you think you’ve heard that Belgian chocolate is posh? Or whatever chocolate happens to be in the petrol station nearest to their house? 

There are pitfalls there which you might recognise. Pitfalls into which a giver of wine to an equivalent wine aficionado might stumble. So over and above the usual protocols for giving wine to a hosthere is a guide to taking a bottle round to a host who is actually interested in wine.

Take a bottle someone else has mentioned. There’s nothing an enthusiast likes more than to test out someone else’s recommendation, so you’re on to a winner if you can say to your host, “Jancis mentioned this last month…”. Or you can go to the opposite extreme, and say “Olly said this was gluggable…”, and then enjoy a good laugh together over the toilet bowl. You can even get away with taking a wine on special offer, if you can say its been mentioned by someone as a Best Buy. Note however that in this context, “mentioned by” does not include the Tannoy announcer in the supermarket.

Take a bottle with a story. Someone gave me a fascinating bottle recently (thanks, Tom), by the simple expedient of talking to someone in a Good Wine Shop (thanks, Good Wine Shop). He explained that he wanted a bottle for someone who was interested in wine. And lo and behold, they sold him an interesting bottle. A wine bearing the name of one of their customers, who turned out to be a concert pianist who also makes wines… I’m already interested.

Take a wine you’ve drunk before. If you have enjoyed a wine yourself, you’ll have your own personal story to tell about it. One of the many advantages of maintaining a modest cellar is that you can gift individual bottles from a case you already know. The only downside is that your modest cellar will be one bottle more modest than before. 

(A fact which, in my experience, your spouse may find it surprisingly hard to grasp when you plead the need to replenish it.)

Take a bottle which costs a lot of money. It sounds crass, but we might as well admit that most expensive wine is better than most cheap wine. And a wine enthusiast will know that it’s expensive, and be really grateful for an opportunity to drink something they might not usually be able to afford.  I’m not saying that I would think any more highly of a guest who brought me a really expensive bottle of wine; just that if anyone would like to try it…

Or take a bottle with string on it. It’s not as stupid as it sounds. That ‘string’ (or, as we aficionados like to call it, gilt wire) distinguishes bottles of better Rioja (Reserva or Gran Reserva) from the bog standard. It was originally put on to cover the cork and label to stop people counterfeiting its contents. So it is an indication of a higher grade of wine. 

Do not feel remotely aggrieved if you follow these guidelines, only for your enthusiast host to spirit your bottle away unopened. Any enthusiast will have planned a wine to go with their meal. Only get concerned if they bring your bottle with them unopened the next time they come back round to yours.

Oh, and there’s one other suggestion. If you’re the guest of a chocolate aficionado

Take wine.


Thursday 16 January 2014

Forty-Five Hours Without A Drink: Jacktone Shiraz

So Christmas and New Year have finally departed, and I am left with the usual sensations of guilt entangled with an increasing sense of my own mortality, and I ask myself, When was the last time I went a whole day without drinking? Good question, I answer myself approvingly, and am tempted to leave it there, along with Where did I leave my Christmas presents? and How long will the boiler hold out?

It nags, though. I'm pretty sure I went at least one day in 2013 without any alcohol, but that may have been because I was coming round from a general anaesthetic. I used to make a point of always taking one day a week off the booze - and held to it pretty well until the last few years, when the regimen started to collapse through sheer inanition and, oh yes, when I started doing Sediment, at which point it became my duty to neck everything in a spirit of calm disinterested enquiry, spurred on by authentic slavering greed.

Equally (I tell myself), in the days when one day in seven was dry, I used to be able to go and get absolutely shitfaced from time to time, in a way I am no longer capable of. I mean, I'm just too old to get blind drunk any more, and in a way I'm grateful. So maybe (I keep telling myself) it all balances out. But then again. A whole day without drink.

I start to get anxious. On the lookout now for symptoms of chronic alcoholic dependency, I am at once rewarded with this horrible web page from the BBC: Should there be a word for 'an almost alchoholic'? Well, the BBC, if indeed it knows, isn't saying what that word might be. But the timing is so menacing that, like some scaly penitent on the road to Santiago de Compostela, I immediately draw the only inference possible and quit drinking for a day, just to see if I still can.

Actually, it's more than a day, because I rarely drink at lunchtimes: in reality it's a forty-five hour dryout from nine at night on a Monday (when I take my last lachrymose swig of the muscular Jacktone Ranch Shiraz my Pa-in-Law gave me for Christmas, might as well be called Testosterone, so burly and stuffed with fruity armpit overtones is it) to six in the evening on Wednesday, the day after the day after, when the wine is allowed to start flowing again. I go to bed in a dim frame of mind.

Still. Next day, Tuesday, goes by comfortably enough, not least because I'm not expecting to drink until the sunset hour of six p.m. I amuse myself by haunting another website, Love Your Liver, which gives me a relatively clean bill of health apart from telling me I might want to visit my doctor on account of being (reading between the lines, here) a burgeoning dipsomaniac. This judgement is of course dependant on the broadly-canvassed idea that there is a medically correct number of drinkable units of alcohol per diem, a notion which PK himself has taken issue with. So while I accept that I could Love my Liver more by drinking less, I reserve judgement as to exactly how much less would be more.

Six o'clock comes and goes, and to my surprise, I still feel fine. In fact, I carry on feeling fine right up to the moment when I sit down with my wife to a chicken risotto with roasted asparagus, only to observe my right hand clutching the empty air where my wine tumbler normally sits, and feeling, not so much desperation or a fit of the shakes, but a kind of grief, a moment of pitying nostalgia, as if remembering a dead pet.

It passes. We end up watching a DVD of Breaking Bad, like everyone else, and retire, about as headachy and querulous as usual. I sleep averagely badly, but in the morning, feel unfamiliar and alert. I feel as if my head has been kept overnight in a warm, dry, cupboard; the dank fuzziness I habitually associate with getting up, is somewhere else. I also seem to have lost two pounds in weight. Coincidence?

This mood continues, interspersed with moments of self-congratulation, plus an uneasy background nag that it might all be about to end in tears - crippling withdrawal symptoms, or a kidney stone, or a heart attack brought on by the sudden depletion of red wine-based antioxidants. Somehow I seem to have got a freebie: a clearish head, a small saving in monetary terms, plus mildly heightened self-esteem - and yet we all know that there are no freebies in life, only deferred payments. 

All the same, it's not going too badly. It's borderline enjoyable. It would be fair to describe it as a good thing.

So, now what? I end my prohibition era with some more of the head-butting Jacktone (I've got another nine bottles to get through), savouring the unfamiliarity of it all. Should I go on the wagon - like some people I know - for the rest of the month? Should I just do it from time to time, when the mood strikes? Should I go back to the weekly dryout? Should I forget the whole thing? I'm inclined to try for weekly temperance again, and see if it makes a difference. How virtuous 2014 is starting to look.


Thursday 9 January 2014

We're back – and this time, it's Rude…

And so we return, skint and sober, from the festive period. Heaven knows how we survived. (What is it, for example, about the Scots? Why do they make such a fuss about celebrating mahogany?)

But to help us stagger through, the people at Rude Wines were kind enough to send us a brace of bottles apiece. Given the pretensions of PK and the poverty of CJ, it's rare for us both to consume the same wines. So here's how the Rude products found their way into our seasonal diet…

28th December 2013 - CJ 
Really I was hoping for something light, refined, but with a hint of austerity – kind of a David Niven wine – after the knuckle-dragging 15% Pilastro my Pa-in-law had insisted on serving over Christmas (see also a couple of Christmasses ago), and which left my mouth feeling like a pub carpet. But of course the La Masseria Primitivo from Rude Wines turned out to be virtually the same as that terrible Pilastro, only 14.5% instead of 15 and with a quieter label. A truth which dawned on me as I sat at my kitchen table morosely tippling while noting on a piece of paper the following gnomic relevancies: 'Like a hedgehog'; 'doesn't get any better'; 'harsh raisins'; and, in a final existential cry, 'industrial vacuum cleaner'. It's bad enough not knowing what I like; but knowing what I don't like and then drinking it anyway has to be somewhere at the top end of stupid. And it's not the first time. I mean, obviously there are scores of people who look on a big, sweating, Primitivo with unfeigned affection, but then there are people who get along with Donald Trump.

29th December – PK 
The problem with celebrations is that they remind me of how I ought to drink. Christmas, New Year and the birthday I have between the two are all excuses for some fine wine drinking of the calibre which I feel I deserve. The issue then is what to drink on the intervening days, without dragging the whole season back down to dross. It seems defeatist to retreat into what I know are bargain bin purchases, with the operative word being ‘bin’. So as leftovers are being arranged into what is known at Casa K as a cold collision, I decide to gamble on one of these unknown Rude wines. Their Antichi Borghi Chianti started off spritely, if a bit on the thin side; but the bouquet disappeared faster than the flames on our Christmas pudding, and the flavour chased it. By the time we had (as Masterchef has taught us to say) “plated up”, it emerged as a strangely greasy, tasteless yet somehow acrid plonk, like a combination of sunflower oil and Night Nurse. Oh dear, let this not be a portent of wines for the year to come. For once, I’m afraid I don’t wish to be Rude…

4th January 2014 - CJ
Crowdfunding a liver transplant: that's my project for the start of the new year. It may be age catching up, but the last few weeks have passed in such a welter of grog, that I am now overwhelmed by sensations of ennui and liverishness plus a desire to replace my insides with something more durable. When it came to it, it was as much as I could do to look at this bottle of Chianti, let alone drink the contents. Still. Out came the cork, the red liquid splashed into the Duralex, and what do you know, but this was the one I was begging for all along? Nice tannins (I smirked to myself) good acidity, and that charming, slightly motheaten finish I look for in a Chianti. Yes: reticent, no nose to speak of, but what was this? A suggestion of caraway? Or was I hallucinating? At any rate, I had been semi-seriously contemplating giving up drink for at least a day. But now? A new accommodation, only with this proviso: please God, no more fit-to-burst heavy-hitting reds, reeking of fruits and black as pitch. Just give me something potable I can see daylight through.

6th January – PK 
It’s all over. The tree is down, the lights extinguished, and Christmas and New Year have evaporated, along with their accompaniment, Happy. To counter a cold, rainswept Twelfth Night – to say nothing of the remnants of an actual cold – and before being thrown back on the diminished resources of my cellar, I opened the second of Rude’s wines. Their Primitivo signalled its intentions like a ringside bell, with a dense, inky colour, and a strong, fruity nose. We’re not talking subtlety here; it’s a squat and muscular John Prescott of a wine. Briefly I forgot my notions of finesse, and wallowed in the syrupy comfort of its dense, plummy warmth with a hint of spice, a glow in winter I found fondly reminiscent of Old English Spangles. It's like a lovely warm bath, for those who drink such things.

But the samples are gone and our racks depleted. It’s time to begin another year of confused foraging. “Bring in”, as Dickens wrote, “the bottled lightning, a clean tumbler and a corkscrew”...