Thursday 6 March 2014

Good Ordinary Claret - from Waitrose. Really?

What have we here? Not just ‘good ordinary wine’. Oh no, this is Good Ordinary Claret, with all the layers of Englishness and class which that construction contains. 

And it’s from Waitrose. Ditto.

It wouldn’t work with any other wine. Good Ordinary Champagne? Most of us only drink champagne on occasions we like to think of as out of the ordinary. Good ordinary chardonnay? Sounds like a Bridget Jones session wine. Good ordinary Burgundy? Contradiction in terms.

The word ‘claret’ has been in use in England since 1400, but gradually became applied solely to red Bordeaux. And partly because of the fashion for Bordeaux among the Georgian aristocracy, the term has become associated firmly with the English upper class. (I’ve had cause before to quote the clever couplet from Blur: “Educated the expensive way/He knows his claret from his Beaujolais.”) 

The term Good Ordinary Claret was first marketed by Berry Bros & Rudd, the oldest and most aristocratic of the wine merchants who come bearing ampersands. As their video explains, they took the name Good Ordinary Claret from their records of selling wine centuries ago, when it was sold from the barrel to customers and described, not by chateau names, but simply as the merchant’s “Claret, choicest”, “Claret, finest” and the like. You imagine that their “Claret, ordinary, good” would have been perfectly palatable – as it remains today. 

You have to admire the sheer Englishness of it all. That way in which we play down any sense of quality or advantage. (We are surely the only race who actually mock intelligence; what makes someone “Too clever for his own good”? How can someone be “too clever by half”?)

Only the English could make something appealing by stating that it’s ordinary. By taking something from the Downton Abbey lifestyle (hence calling it claret, and not Bordeaux) and then suggesting that you are taking it for granted. If it’s everyday for the aristocracy, then it’ll be a treat for us peasants.

And so suddenly, latching on to this idea like some Johnny-come-lately arriviste, here comes Waitrose, ignorantly pushing its trolley across the croquet lawn.

Waitrose is the supermarket which likes to wave aspiration in the face of its customers. This is why the Waitrose Essentials range includes such 'essential' items as guacamole,  orchid-scented candles, and camomile ironing water

And here they are, selling a 'Good Ordinary Claret' at £4.99, around half the price of Berry Bros’ offering. 

Understandably, given it is their claret you are buying, Berry Bros feature themselves on their label.  Waitrose choose not to follow suit. (Perhaps because the most widely circulated picture of a Waitrose is this.) 

Instead, their claret bears a hideous pictorial label with perspective problems. It looks less like a chateau and vineyard, and more like a country cottage with a badly trimmed hedge.

On the back, they have helpfully put a little map, in case we’re not sure where Bordeaux is. They don’t have to do this at Berry Bros, because their customers have forebears who actually owned Bordeaux.

But one may say that the label is neither here nor there, since if we are drinking traditional claret in traditional claret manner, we will be decanting it. It is a matter of some concern that a proper claret jug now seems only to make an appearance as the trophy of the British Open. But of course, Berry Bros sell two – bottle size and, rather magnificently I feel, magnum size. Waitrose’s parent, John Lewis, sells an impressive 32 decanters –  but claret jugs – noneSays it all, really.

It is a matter of painful regret that I have drunk as many bottles of £4.99 wines as I have good clarets, so I feel qualified to say that the Waitrose wine falls firmly into the former category. Its initial hit of vinegar mercifully softens in the glass, but leaves behind a less aggressive but also less flavoursome wine, without any of the fragrance or finesse which Bordeaux should achieve. Its blandness makes it more drinkable than other harsher wines at the price. But I’d feel sorry for anyone who thought they were getting even ordinary claret, let alone good. And why might they think they could get that for £4.99? Because Waitrose tells them so.

At £9, Berry Bros’ Good Ordinary Claret is not cheap. But, it’s the real deal. In that now all too commonplace phrase, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Although it doesn’t come in one.

Their Good Ordinary Claret gets customer comments from the likes of Will (of course) from Shropshire (naturally). “Great wine for a boys shooting weekend,” he says.

Thanks for that, Will. We’ll tell the lads in Peckham.


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