Thursday 27 February 2014

Song - John Dryden; Californian Wines

CJ is away this week - so, as with last year's offering from William Burroughs, Sediment takes the opportunity to present another discovery from the wine/literature interface.

John Dryden (1631 - 1700) was a man of parts: critic, dramatist, satirist, translator, Poet Laureate. He is best-remembered today for such poems as Annus Mirabilis (1667) and Absalom and Achitophel (1681) – quasi-epic in form, often tinged with satirical wit; dramas such as All For Love (1678) and Marriage à la Mode (1673); essays - Of Dramatic Poesie (1667) and Defence of the Epilogue (1672); and a host of shorter poems, some playful in tone (Rondelay; Song - Sylvia the Fair), others threnodic (On the Death of Mr. Purcell). So central was he to the culture of Restoration England, that – in the literary world at least – the latter part of the seventeenth century became known as the Age of Dryden.

This little-known Song is a relatively early work, dating from 1661: a modestly comic adversion to the perils of drink. Does it deserve a larger reputation? 

Well, while it displays some typically Drydenesque metrical daring, its effects seem, all the same, underpowered; and its reliance on Caesarean imagery, predictable. As an apprentice piece, therefore, it's bearable; but not much more.

The only thing to make it stand out is this curious anomaly - spotted by the Sediment research team a while ago: the poem is an acrostic, in which the first letter of every line, read from top to bottom, spells out a name. In this case, JACKTONE RANCH, nowadays associated with a popular Californian wine range. Coincidence? Prescience? How could Dryden have known of Californian wines, three hundred and sixty years ago? And why this particular brand? The mystery remains. As the does the poem itself:


Just Caesar, whom the world obeyed,
Augustus Great, proud Tiberine
Could ne'er have drunk, sure ne'er have made
Kind Bacchus! such an ardent wine.
Tell Princes, Kings; tell France; tell Spain
Of Hippocrene
Empurpled as Augustus' train.

Recalling this alone:
All men are free to drown their sorrow -
Not Caesar only – and to sell the morrow
Cheap. But this once done –
How costly seems the morning sun!


Thursday 20 February 2014

Wine temperature - a matter of degrees

There it was, on the wine label – “Best served at room temperature”. And I thought to myself, how on earth do you know the temperature of my room?

Room temperature is surely one of those measures of which everybody has their own opinion. How hot is a hot bath? How cold is a cold snap? How deep is your love?

But you may, like me, be horrified to hear that, according to France Today, “Room temperature, or chambré, is a measurement referring to a range of 12-14C / 54-57F, which is a few degrees above that of a cellar.

“Bear in mind,” they continue, “that this was set when châteaux didn't have central heating and their walls were three feet thick.”

Yes, I certainly will bear that in mind. As far as I am concerned, 12-14C is what we in London call “taters”. And it is not only way below a comfortable temperature for a room, it is also way below the 17-18C which is comfortable for mature claret.

I only know one person who has a similar notion of room temperature, and that is my father-in-law. His West Country house operates at Baltic temperatures, its oil-fired heating deciding each day whether or not to work, rather like a 1970s shop steward. Guests are to be found huddled together around the open living-room fire for warmth, distinguished from primevals only by their pre-dinner drinks, before reluctantly braving the chill of his Berlin corridor to reach the dining room.

In the wake of energy price rises, something of his philosophy has been adopted by his daughter. Woe betide if Mrs K returns to our house and finds the heating on when she’s not stomping snow off her boots. She sits defiantly in her study under three layers of clothing and a Siam Airways blanket; the temperature may emulate a chateau lifestyle, but the fashion aesthetic does not. 

No, I am not Ernest Shackleton, nor was meant to be, and unlike him I find it hard to write when I am dressed as if for an antarctic expedition. I must have a very different idea of room temperature to, say, an Eskimo. Perhaps, when told that a Burgundy should be served at room temperature, an Eskimo reaches for an ice-bucket. Or simply breaks off a piece of his hallway. 

And which “room” are we talking about? In my own lifetime, the English bathroom seems to have changed from a refrigerated container to an underfloor- and towel-rail-heated thermae. I rarely drink wine in the bathroom myself, but temperature-wise it may currently be the ideal place in which to do so, with the facilities conveniently to hand for dealing with any which turns out to be substandard.

In a full dining room, even at my father-in-law’s, the temperature soon starts to rise. That, however, may be due more to what are appropriately termed “heated conversations”. Perhaps, instead of concerning themselves with the room itself, wine labels should speculate about the temperature of debate within it? “This Beaujolais would best accompany cool consideration“? “This powerful Shiraz will fuel a flaming row”?

And let’s not get started on the summer, when (if we’re lucky) room temperature might well get higher than the chateau ideal. (In fact, isn’t that what most of us go to the South of France for?) 

Like most houses in the UK, we do not possess an air conditioner.The idea is so alien to us that, when I first heard about someone putting on an air conditioner, I asked whether they shouldn’t shampoo first. Our air conditioning is achieved through a handy, dual-position device commonly known as a window.

I think we can surmise, therefore, that in summer the temperature of my room is significantly above that recommended for a red wine. While at the moment, it is significantly below it. So please don’t tell me to serve my red at “room temperature”.

Temperature can make an enormous difference to the taste of a wine, and Jancis Robinson’s guide to the ideal serving temperature for various wines is terrific.  “Serving a wine at the most flattering temperature may seem absurdly high-falutin' and precious as an activity,” she says, “but it really can transform ink into velvet”. Frankly, given some of my own purchases, I’d be delighted if it transformed it into drinkable wine.

I am not going to the lengths of purchasing a wine thermometer, to check my wine before serving; somehow I feel the perfection would be outweighed by the derision. But I do have problems with this notion that “room temperature” is some kind of universal standard. Particularly as I sit here wondering whether I should keep my gloves on for dinner.

Oh, and I forgot to ask. That chateau room temperature, just a few degrees above that of their cellar. Did they have their tumble dryer on down there?


Thursday 13 February 2014

Virgin Wines - Semillon Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, all sorts

So, as I observed to PK, I ordered this stuff from Virgin Wines on the back of a special offer that came with a broadband router gadget. Trying to get your router to work? Have a drink! It's the logical next step.

Naturally enough, this mail-order wine, dispatched to our house in the London suburbs, with good road and rail connections, didn't arrive, even though Virgin emailed me two days after the order to ask how I was enjoying it: 'I trust everything went well with your recent order,' wrote someone called Jay Wright, 'We'd love to hear from you.' So they heard from me that the drink hadn't come, at which point David Cole (Priority One Senior Advisor his job title, as if he might be in the US Air Force) got back pretty much instantly - 'Unfortunately it would appear your case has gone missing in transit.' I could have told him that from the outset, given that most of our wine goes missing in transit, but anyway.

No sweat, though, as they ordered up a fresh case of Mixed Essentials, followed by an email from Christopher Ward (Priority One Advisor), advising me to 'Rest assured either myself or a member of the delivery team will be tracking this new case for you to ensure that any issues that arise are swiftly dealt with.' What do you know, but the stuff turned up next day, present and correct, followed by a phone call from a guy announcing himself as Dave - David Cole? I hope so - to check that it was actually there. Now that's service, sort of.

Not only that, but the case contained a nice black envelope with the legend Go on, open me, you know you want to... printed on the front, a clear lift from the Sediment email heads-ups, and within, a voucher for a clothing and, yes, lifestyle, store, plus £25 off a food delivery company's first order. A surfeit of good things.

The wines themselves? To be honest, a bit of a blur. Eight different varieties, half-and-half mainstream white and red, Malbec, Merlot, Chardonnay, all sorts. I simply don't have the mental clarity to hold an opinion on them all. Even now, I have a bottle of Le Clos Gascon on the go - Merlot and Tannat, apparently, the latter a grape I had never heard of, big in Uruguay - and a Barossa Valley white. I opened this one up without looking to see what it was, took a mouthful, said to myself, Hmm, a sauvignon blanc? But not as sawtoothed as usual, only to discover that it was a Sémillon Sauvignon Blanc. Which I guess makes sense. And it's a perfectly approachable drink, as have they all been, especially at the discounted price of around £5 a bottle. If I'd paid the notional full price of around £7? Less convincing. But since we know that wine pricing in the UK is as transient and unpredictable as ironic laughter, then fair enough.

No, the thing that really sticks with me is the sense of being professionally worked over by the Virgin Wines customer care wranglers. Whoever does Virgin's wines (in Norwich, it seems) they give you that sense of being handled by someone really dedicated to customer handling, possibly, just possibly, in order to take your mind off the actual quality of the purchase you've just made.

Is this what the Virgin brand is about? The only dealings I can recall having, ever, with Virgin, were years ago when the whole family flew Virgin Atlantic to San Francisco. At one point it was about 3 a.m. London time on the plane, almost everyone had passed out - when the Virgin cabin crew, in their smart red uniforms, woke us all up to offer us a mint'n'choc ice cream. We were too fuddled and exhausted to say No or For Christ's sake. We humbly accepted our ices, ate them, and were, in some cretinous way, grateful for having been woken up in the dead of night and required to eat an entirely inapproprate snack. Well, we said. You don't get that on BA. A women in a red uniform woke me up with a mint'n'choc ice! Who cares about the rest of it? Who, indeed, can remember?

So thanks, Jay, Dave and Chris. It's been fun. It's been about the people. And, to some extent, it's been about the wine.


Thursday 6 February 2014

A whole new take on wine in a box – Jacob's Creek Reserve

In the past, we may have been scathing about wine in a box. But this is a whole new take on the idea. This is a bottle of wine in a box.

Why would you put a bottle of Jacob’s Creek wine on sale in a box? The only reason I can imagine is that they think it makes it look posher, more exclusive and expensive. In which case, their ambitions have been thwarted by the arcane rules of discounting, which made this Reserve in a box a pound cheaper than the bog-standard alternative beside it. 

Boxes are ideal for gifts. This is because it is very hard to gift-wrap a bottle without it immediately looking like a gift-wrapped bottle. 

A gift-wrapped box could contain anything, although the glugging sound it makes when you move it is a bit of a giveaway. (“It’s either a bottle…or an immense spirit level…”)

But frankly, who is going to give as a gift a bottle of Jacob’s Creek? This is not a wine aimed at connoisseurs, as indicated by the fact that the drinker has to be told how to open it

Are they worried that, if they didn’t print “twist to open” on it – twice – a buyer might attack the screwcap with a corkscrew? Or, perhaps, with a confusingly named “bottle-opener”? Although, as someone pointed out,  the instruction doesn’t tell drinkers which way to twist. That’ll get ‘em…

We’re talking about a sub-£8 bottle of wine. This is like making a gift of eight cans of tuna. Even in a fancy box, there’s going to be some disappointment when that gets opened. Although the last time I looked, if you wanted to flatter your recipient’s intelligence, there were no opening instructions on the tuna cans.

If this box is meant to be a gift, and it’s been left on the shelves since Christmas, that’s a pretty strong indication that the strategy hasn’t worked.

It also presents problems when you are not buying it as a gift. When you are buying it for yourself, but you return to your shopping trolley carrying a wine in a box, and your wife’s jaw drops as if you were trolleying a television set. 

Perhaps this is part of what Jacob’s Creek themelves call their strategy of “premiumisation”. They have presumably invented this hideous term to describe their efforts to sell their product as something classy. So, for instance, they call this wine Reserve, in order to, er. premiumise it. They don’t stop to think that to their typical customer, a Reserve is not something better, it’s a player who didn’t make the team.

They have borrowed the box idea from upmarket whiskies, which frequently come in boxes. Sometimes, they come in strong cardboard tubes with metal lids; these protect the bottle, and lure the recipient into thinking that there will be a good use for the tube when the whisky is finished, a delusion which can last for months of dust-gathering disuse until, as it should have been in the first place, the tube’s thrown away.

This whole concept certainly fooled the boy on the checkout, who suggested that we open the box to see if the bottle inside had a security tag attached. Of course it won’t, I felt like saying, as I had indeed said to Mrs K, it’s not a £30 Scotch. It costs £7.49!  But I went along with him, just to make us all think I was buying something special.

Which of course I was not. Jacob’s Creek Reserve has the brick colour and strawberry nose of a pinot noir, but it has no depth; it’s thin, with unresolved bitterness around the edges. And it has no finish at all, vanishing from the palate as soon as it passes. It’s perfectly drinkable, but it’s a commodity pinot noir, a Mother’s Pride in an era of artisan sourdough loaves.

You can’t make a silk purse out of Jacob’s Creek by calling it Reserve and putting it in a box. But you can make a pig’s ear out of “premiumisation”.