Thursday 29 May 2014

Summer time, and the drinking is, they tell me, rosé…

“The sun is out, and summer is on its way. That can only mean one thing…“ 

My breath is bated. Could it be sunbathing, the World Cup, perspiration, men wearing those repellent three-quarter length shorts with pockets on the legs? 

No, “it’s time to stock up your fridge with refreshing rosé.”

You may have missed the brief spell of sunshine which occurred earlier this month, but e-mails like that from wine merchants cascaded into my inbox as soon as the weather forecasters stopped wearing long sleeves. 

“Sunshine = perfect Rosé weather!” emailed another wine merchant, in a frenzy to cash in on this passing glimmer of sun. “The sun is out – it’s time for rosé,” insisted a third. 

The sun hasn’t even got his hat on yet, just twirled his Panama contemplatively in his hand, but nevertheless, it seems everything’s coming up rosé.

You might consider it somewhat foolhardy, given our temperate clime, to associate a wine solely with sunny weather. While champagne has a similarly strong association with celebration, at least we usually have several celebratory occasions spread throughout the year. But just as you might feel slightly contrary drinking a champagne, however cheap, with an everyday fish supper at your kitchen table, you would feel daft drinking a rosé in the winter – or even, it has to be said, in the rain. No wonder wine merchants get into a tizzy when they see a sunny opportunity to shift their stock of rosé.

There’s an inherent playfulness, a frivolity about pink wine, and an increasing urge to link it to the outdoor party lifestyle of those who can afford to follow the sun. People for whom umbrellas are not something to be used in a shower, but in a drink. 

And so, like champagne, rosé is becoming available in huge, party bottles – or, as one newspaper described them, “crazy, St Tropez yacht-scale, quench the thirst of the Riviera, ginormous bottles”, like a six-litre Methuselah. Perhaps regrettably, perhaps not, I do not live a life myself in which people serve wine from bottles the size of a fire extinguisher.

But the result of all of this is that drinking rosé is becoming an event, an occasion in itself. Like port at Christmas, rosé is something to ooh! and ahh! about, and wonder why you don’t do it more often. But, again rather like port at Christmas, it is drunk so rarely that our quality judgments are blinded by the occasion. And in the case of rosé, it is usually drunk so cold that your tastebuds are numb. As long as it’s tolerable, the event’s a good ‘un.

So I thought I should test this concept; buy the cheapest rosé I could lay my hands upon, chill it to within an inch of freezing, and drink it on a sunny day. I reckoned that, rather like drinking champagne at a wedding, the occasion – to say nothing of the chill – would override any issues about taste. So inbetween deleting sun-related e-mails from wine merchants, and preparing to avoid men in singlets on the London Underground, I calmly put into the fridge my normal-sized bottle of Les Hautes Plateaux, a Provencal rosé bought for just £2.65.

Hold on there, young fella! Did you say £2.65? When the Duty and Tax on a bottle amount to more than that? Never mind the quality, where can you get a bottle of wine from France for just £2.65? The answer, sadly, is… from France. 

Eschewing the expensive pleasures of La Maison des MillesimesI picked up this Provencal rosé in the more Sediment-appropriate location of the bottom shelf of a Monoprix, on a recent visit to Paris. Frankly, it looks as credible as any other Provencal rosé being touted as an essential ingredient of summer. And given that, at the time of writing, a bag of McCain’s Gorgeous oven readies at Waitrose are £3.00, it’s actually cheaper than chips.

In the sunshine, fresh out of the fridge, the bottle gets that frosted look from the condensation, and makes your hand wet and cold when you hold it. Ah, this is what rosé drinking is all about. Through the chill I detect a crisp mineral clarity, then a lightly fruity aftertaste. The trick is not to let it warm up, when a disconcerting oiliness seems to sneak through. But, why would you let it warm up? The whole object of the exercise is to drink it ice cold.

Yes, I have tasted better. This being Sediment, it means little if I say that I have also tasted worse. But the cheapest rosé imaginable provided all the cold, crisp refreshment one could ask for on a sunny day, together with a visual association with the high life of the South of France for which I could have paid a great deal more. Keep ‘em cheap, keep ‘em cold, and rosés could grow on me.

Unless it keeps on raining…


Thursday 22 May 2014

Over Our Heads: Château le Crock

So PK and I are at a vertical tasting of some high-end Bordeaux (2013 through to 2010) and, all right, it's too early to tell in most cases whether what I'm drinking is going to be an absolute steal at £50 a bottle + six years of waiting; or whether it's going to start off hysterically assertive and stay hysterically assertive; or whether it's going to fizzle into nonentity. That said, all four years of the Château le Crock (one of PK's personal favourites, you know) are pretty finesse-rich, the 2010 already tasting - by a discernible margin - better than nearly all the stuff I normally buy for myself.

Which passes the time very pleasantly; also because we get a free portion-controlled lunch in handsome surroundings (Somerset House). And yet the question persists: what, in all honesty, am I doing here? I am as likely to buy a Bordeaux Grand Cru as I am to buy a gyrocopter, and, more to the point, I am not alone. This piece has been echoing in my head for weeks, with its primary assertion that most Brits will not pay more than £6 for a bottle of wine - while only seven per cent of British wine buyers are willing to go over £10 a bottle. And that nearly a third of male British wine drinkers are unable to name a single grape variety.

There's more. It chimes with this news, that, despite our national obsession with TV food shows and celebrity chefs and best-selling cookery books, we now spend half as much time actually preparing real food as we did twenty years ago; eating an increasing volume of ready-made and fast foods instead. The behaviour of an entire media industry is predicated on the idea that we love to get involved with flavourful, challenging meals (in one of yesterday's free sheets on the train there were detailed instructions as to how to make the perfect Bolognaise sauce, fully-engaged preparation time something over three hours), an idea which is persistently and rigorously contradicted by what we actually do.

Well, we sort of know this, don't we? We're just made that way in the UK - food slobs who happily and paradoxically live with a food fixation but have no desire to do the hard work in the kitchen. Which is every bit as true of wine. Thousands upon thousands of words are written every week about wines, scores of recommendations are made - just about all them, however sincerely-intentioned, coming in above the magic £6 a bottle mark - quite often at twice that price; fairly often, more than twice. But what do we do? Stick to our overpriced £6-and-less crap wine, heat up a moussaka in a foil tray and carry on reading. Or, in my case, go to the occasional smartyboots wine tasting before returning home to the domestic fodder of potatoes and grog.

Where does the locus of perversity lie? In us, for persistently indulging fantasies which we could, just about, turn into reality, but won't? Or in the fantasy-peddlers, who could, if they wanted, give us authentic real-life information about how to get the best out of our packet sandwiches and Aldi Shiraz, but set their faces ever towards Fairyland, apparently unconcerned as the gap widens between what we fill our culture with, and what we fill ourselves with?

I try an analogy on PK: it's as if car writers only ever discussed Bentleys and Mercs, leaving the Kias and Fords that people actually bought, ignored, or spoken of merely to make a dismissive point of comparison. PK says, no, it's not like that because the nature of the transaction is so different. I carry on anyway, claiming that I would like nothing more than a blow-by-blow account of when best to decant my £2.99 Baron St Jean, and how to breathe life into a salad-in-a-bag that's going black, but I am not making progress. I am even close to announcing that our culture is fundamentally dysfunctional, but I can see PK's eyes glazing with boredom, so I give up.

We return to our out-on-day-release fantasy wine tasting. I feel a bit dysfunctional myself by now, not least because these high-end Bordeaux are so off my radar - however provocatively they price themselves, a buyer will, ultimately and always, it seems, be found - and wonder what my kids will make of it all.

'I need a Sauternes to clear my palate,' PK says, daring to be different.

We have some. It's pretty nice. And what? Fifty quid a bottle? Thirty-three ready-made sandwiches' worth of Sauternes?

'Not bad,' I say, as if I really do this kind of thing.


Thursday 15 May 2014

Burgundy, Wine of Kings – vs Roncier

There are probably people who drink Burgundy every day. They probably live in Burgundy.

The rest of us pay handsomely to occasionally enjoy the image of Falstaffian indulgence which seems married to Burgundy. 

“Fancy a glass of Bordeaux with that?” sounds somehow cerebral. “A spot of Jumilla Monastrell?” suggests you’re enjoying an actress. And “How about a glass of Shiraz?” begs the answer “Or, you could punch me in the face…” 

But “Let’s have a glass of Burgundy, eh?” – now, there’s an invitation. Burgundy, as Byron described it, “in all its sunset glow”.Burgundy, that “Olympian nectar” (thank you, Petrarch). So when I walk past a wine merchant, and they have these bottles on display, labelled “Burgundy, £8.99”, I think I could be on to a winner. This Roncier might be the kind of modestly-priced, under-specified Burgundy which Burgundians presumably drink for themselves.

Perhaps the locals haven’t spotted it. The merchant is, after all, on a road which has featured in one of those CCTV programmes called something like Camera, Action, Unprovoked Violence. The people around here probably think Burgundy refers to the colour of the wine, and are still looking for the ones labelled Crimson and Russet as if they’re in a paint shop.

It has a grand-looking label, and it’s in a Burgundy bottle, that shoulderless design once said by a Bordeaux négociant to be “shaped that way because it pours faster.” But…is it really Burgundy? I have to ask. 

The shop assistant draws attention to the fact that Roncier comes from Mercurey. But the label bears only the lowly designation Vin de France; no vintage; and the following guff in French on the back label: When I arrive in your cellar, let me rest a few days. The trip was a bit tiring, and I want to give you the best of myself. 

Damn cheek! I’m knackered myself, as a matter of fact, largely from walking to this wine merchant. My trip was also “a bit tiring”, actually, and this bottle has probably been having a “rest” on the shelf for several weeks. No, this Burgundy is going down tonight, with the artisan steak & kidney pie I’ve just bought from across the road. And this is the first time my listing of a wine’s characteristics has to include the word lazy.

Philip the Bold, in a ruling of 1395, referred to Burgundy as “the best and most precious and suitable wines of the kingdom, consumed by the Pope, the King and several other lords.” Only a small degree of bias might possibly be inferred from his other title – Duke of Burgundy.

The winemakers of Bordeaux naturally disagree, referring to it as a drink of sauce and blood. One Bordelais was given a glass to taste on a television show, and told afterwards that it was Burgundy. “Burgundy, really?” he said. “I had no idea. It’s excellent – but just the same, I prefer wine.”

Well, ditto. When the cork comes out of this one, I see it is printed with 170 ans of qualité – 1842-2012, a statement which proves more accurate in its mathematics than its judgment. 

This Roncier has a very faint bouquet, reminiscent of pinot noir being opened in an adjacent room. It is then rapidly followed by a car crash of unappealing flavours – bitterness, damp wool and the lickings of old boiled sweet wrappers. Never mind the good name of Burgundy, it does little credit to the definition of wine. 

The label does not bear any vintage because, they say on their website, it has a consistent flavour. I don’t know whether to be reassured that I didn’t just get a bad year, or appalled that, year after year, it never gets any better. But I soldier on through it – unlike the French themselves, I rarely admit defeat.

Once again I have been frustrated in my endeavour to enjoy top-shelf wine at bottom-shelf prices. Indeed, you could say my endeavour is like the wine itself – fruitless. If this is the kind of lower-priced local table wine which Burgundians themselves drink, I can only agree with that Bordelais. Burgundy, really? I prefer wine.


Thursday 8 May 2014

Prieuré Saint-Jacques Corbières 2011: Plan B

So, having recovered a bit of composure after the Virgin futility, I return to my original Fitou/Corbières fixation. Why either of these?

1) French, but not a Bordeaux or a Burgundy or anything high-end or infested by wealthy pedants

2) To a suggestible punter, redolent of the deep south of France, tourism overtones, keynotes of non-existent idealised locations, dust, heat, cicadas

3) Okay price

4) Nostalgia - not actually a legitimate reason for anything, revealing as it does a shallowly-submerged desire to recall some limelit period back in the 1980's when we were young, and drank cheap Fitou and Corbières and they were foul, but we had something then, we had dependable eyesight, unrealistic self-belief, SKOL lager, and an answering machine that had to be installed by a BT engineer

A perfunctory trawl of the internet turns up some positives. Wine-Searcher describes Fitou as 'Rustic, herby, leather-scented, medium-bodied and moderately tannic,' which is exactly what I'm after with the exception of leather-scented. French Mediterranean Wine talks about 'Chunky and quite extracted with vibrant fruit'. The confidence sappingly-named We Review Anything hails 'Woody spicy French sophistication on a budget'; also good.

It takes Jancis Robinson to lower the temperature with a minatory 'The dominant co-operatives - ' in the Fitou area ' - have been slow to realise that quality is the key to survival', and 'There is still a vast amount of cynical "commodity" wine on the market.' While noting her reservations, I am still keen. The key is to get hold of anything from the Mont Tauch co-operative, far and away the most highly-regarded of the region, and whose products are not that difficult to find.

Only, for administrative reasons, I have to get it from my doorstep Waitrose. Do they have any such thing? No. They used to do a Fitou, a Mont Tauch, but not now. I assume they've decided that Fitou is too low-rent and best left to Tesco and Asda, both of whom do have it, but not near enough to where I live.

'Oh, crap,' I say, staring at the wines, and a man with a shallow trolley full of water bottles looks at me.

Plan B, therefore, is to retreat to the nearest available Waitrose Corbières, which turns out to be this Prieuré Saint-Jacques 2011, and about which I have no information, only a skimpy aspirational mood. I get it, return home, and set about justifying my decision. What'sThe Best Wine doesn't actually say anything about Prieuré Saint-Jacques, or indeed, Corbières, other than 'I'm a big fan of South of France wines and its big, spicy, feral reds.' Feral, I'm going to guess, is all right. Vivino does, however, have the very bottle I've just bought: 'Good initial nose and well-rounded flavour with a hint of blackcurrants, but a little short with quick alcoholic fumes.'

'I can live with that,' I say aloud. 'I've had worse.'

Better, though, is Tasted and Rated, but of a different 2011 Corbières: 'Really very good and ridiculously good value.' I have paid £6.49 for mine. Is that good value? 

I can't go on psyching myself up forever. I must drink the stuff.

The tasting notes come out like this:

- No nose
- Berries
- Slight farmyard
- Dry, almost biscuity finish, increasingly peppery
- Nice acidity
- Herbal
- Reticent

In other words, the usual dumb opacities, followed by my pen running out of ink.

'I can live with this,' I say aloud, again. 'I've definitely had worse.' To test this assertion, I grab an already-opened bottle of South African Cabernet Franc - a Virgin by-product - and take a sip. Then some more of the Corbières. To give it its due, the Cabernet Franc started off yesterday as dull as gifted knitwear but got more likeable after a few hours of neglect, so it's a worthy opponent: turns out it's actually no worse than the Corbières; but on the other hand, not quite as interesting.

The Corbières, by the same token, has something of what I thought I was looking for (deep south, medium bodied, angry spices, leatherette): but enough to make it worth taking a plunge on, oh, half a case of more of the same? Or, better still, going back to Plan A and getting some Fitou at Majestic? I've invested so much in this project - about an hour's constructive thought - that I have to go forward with it. It's just unfortunate that my track record when it comes to conscious wine purchasing is spotty, to say the least. I'm tempted, though. I'm tempted like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity.


Thursday 1 May 2014

"Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?"

I have never been drawn to the rather depressing notion of everyday drinking. (As opposed to the rather attractive notion of drinking every day.) A great wine for everyday drinking, they say. A great everyday wine. 

“Everyday wine”? You don’t get people promoting “everyday meat”.

An “everyday” item is mundane, unexciting and predictable. You don’t really want to be surprised by your butter, to have a complicated carrot or interesting milk. There’s nothing uplifting about the everyday. And for all the talk of everyday wine, the imagery of wine itself is anything but everyday.

The firelight flickers in the background of a glass of red…the sunset glistens through a glass of white…the bay can be seen shimmering behind a glass of rosé. This is the wine of most promotional images –  a fantasy, at complete odds with this widely expressed enthusiasm for everyday wine.

Everyday wine is usually mentioned in the same breath as kitchen suppers and weekend lunches. But kitchen tables, with their flotsam and jetsam of family life, their rich ethnographic tapestry of stains, last weekend's newspapers and bicycle repair tools, are not where glasses of wine are shown.

Red wine is usually pictured in a glass upon a posh dining table, alongside a place set for dinner. The quantity of cutlery suggests the food is something rather superior to spag bol. The expensive crockery, the napery, the flowers, all speak of a sophisticated meal, the supposedly ideal setting for a glass of red wine. Fires are lit. Wood is polished. There are often candles involved.

A glass of red wine is not shown on the corner of a tray, with News at Ten in the background. You don’t see it standing on a pile of books which haven’t been moved off the coffee table, with just a tiny dribble running down the outside of the glass. You don’t see a promotional picture of a glass of red wine perched precariously on the armrest of a sofa. 

White wine is usually depicted impossibly chilled, the glass glistening with condensation, a bubble winking at the brim. I have been told by photographers that this is often artifice in itself, that the condensation on the glass may be glycerine, and the bubble a transparent bead. Be that as it may; no-one shows a desirable glass of white wine standing on a carpet by a settee.

Rosé is probably the most fantastic, commonly portrayed on a sunny balcony with a bay in the background. It is nearly always shown being drunk outdoors, clearly an issue as far as “everyday” in the UK is concerned. There are those who do drink outdoors every day in this country, but they veer away from rosé wine in favour of Special Brew. Try as some might, barbecues have never become part of our everyday culture, and while dejeuner sur l’herbe is theoretically possible in a London park, there will probably be a bit of stick from the locals for the naked girl in front. 

If there’s any identifiable exterior background to a glass of wine in an promotional picture, it is inevitably of the vineyard from which the wine has come. Why? Do you really want to be transported from your comfortable home to what is, for all intents and purposes, a field? Conveyed to your wine’s dusty origin? I mean, for heaven’s sake, it might be New Zealand

On the one hand I have this threat of everyday wine, thrummingly dull and as uplifting as lettuce. On the other, the fantasy notion of wine, a world of sophistication, romance and travel, where all dining is indoor by firelight or outside in the sun, where my rosé can turn a drizzly afternoon into a sunny day – and my glass of red will make, if not a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, at least a Michelin star out of a pork sausage.

Which one is harder to swallow?