Thursday 26 June 2014

All you need to know about Sainsbury's Winemaker's Selection Argentinian Malbec

The phrase “That’s more than I needed to know…” is generally applied to rather off-putting details about something repellent. Well…

There seems to be an inverse relationship between the standard of a wine, and the amount of information its labels provide. Some of the greatest wines in the world tell you little more than their name, and their vintage. What more do they need to say? Whereas the cheap grot doles out as much information as possible, as if by presenting a heap of indisputable but often unnecessary facts about the wine, they will bury the key truth, that it may not taste remotely credible.

And here, providing a suspiciously voluminous amount of facts, is one of the first wines in the UK to present calorie information on its label. It follows research by Sainsbury’s which discovered that 85% of Britons do not know how many calories there are in a glass of wine. 

Hardly surprising, is it, given that nothing like 85% of Britons actually drink wine? 

Anyway, Lord Sainsbury believes in “providing consumers with the information that they need to make informed choices”. And as a result, the back label of his Winemakers’ Selection Argentinian Malbec is a gigantic mess of information, containing tables, graphics, symbols, codes, a barcode, phone numbers, postcodes and a small map. Oh, and a calorie count. 

The question is, on a need to know basis, how much of this do we actually need to know?

The label tells you that it’s vegan, which will certainly not trouble 85% of Britons. That the closure is screwcap, because you might not have noticed, and that this wine bottle is glass – as opposed to?

It tells you that “It is recommended that this wine be consumed within 1 year of purchase”. Always a depressing statement on a bottle of red wine; it means it’s not going to get any better.

There is allergy advice, which tells you that it contains sulphites. But interestingly, there is no other indication of what is actually in it. Grapes? Sugar? Sawdust? Ink? Who knows? Clearly not “information you need to make informed choices”.

Of course there is the whole “units of alcohol” business, and a warning to “Avoid alcohol if pregnant or trying to conceive”. Although I always thought a couple of glasses of alcohol were a key step in the process of trying to conceive…

And there, squeezed into a little gap by the alcohol percentage by volume, the capacity of the bottle and that funny-looking e symbol which few of us understand, it tells us about the calorie count.

It uses the presumably technical term “Nutrition:”, which makes you feel better about the whole enterprise, since viewing wine as nutritious is clearly a positive move. “Just having my glass of nutrients, dear…” You begin to think this is something you might be buying from a pharmacy.

And the label tells us that per 100ml, this wine contains 399kJ/95kcal – and that a 125ml glass (a cough and a spit, but we’ll let that go) contains 499kJ/119kcal.

Now, looking up calories online is a nightmare. It’s like trying to compare broadband charges, or energy costs. Everyone seems to come up with different figures; one sure way to lose weight is from the stress of comparing differing calorie counts. Is a glass of wine the equivalent of two fish fingers, or four? And I am now fixated on the discovery that there are 4 calories in a Twiglet. Which would be the harder way to get 119 calories past my lips – 1 glass of this wine, or a fasces of 30 Twiglets?

Because there lies the problem. Having told us that this wine damages your liver, causes obesity, hinders conception and upsets your sulphites allergy, Sainsbury’s have a simple method of preventing unhealthy over-indulgence – it’s horrible. 

This is a fact strangely omitted from their label, which mentions fruits like blackberry and cherry, but not a nose of old dishcloth, or a flaccid taste of damp cardboard and candle wax. Frankly, they’re quite safe putting a calorie count on this, because in order to exceed your quota you’d need the determination of an Olympian – in which case you’d be unlikely to have a problem with obesity.

So, it’s horrible. Which, beyond all of the information crammed on to that label, is actually all ye need to know. 

Conveniently, however, the label does provide a Careline phone number. So if you do happen to drink any, and you need to talk to someone about it…


Thursday 19 June 2014

Steep Gradient: Azerbaijan to St Emilion

So, a couple of weeks back, PK and I are at the London Wine Fair, and what do we see among the usual mixture of fat corporate shills and perspiring smallholders, but a display dedicated to the fine wines of Azerbaijan?

'This is the one,' I say to PK, dragging him towards the stand as if it owes him money.
'No, it's not,' he says. 'Why are you doing this?'
'Because we deserve it,' I say. 'Because we must live more intensely.'

And maybe we are such intensely-living creatures that we do deserve it: someone pours us a sweet, tarry, frankly adhesive wine, brownish-red, suggestive (I'm guessing) of Old Baku, difficult to get out of one's head. PK at once blames me, also blaming me for a Moldovan red we fight our way through later in the day; whereas I blame him for the Chile-based ProBulkWine we try last of all.

As its name suggests, ProBulkWine deals in immense quantities of generic tanker wine sourced in Chile and Argentina and priced, pre-tax, at a few US cents a litre. The punter buys as many kilolitres as he wants and has them made up into his own branded version. The 2014 vintages are on show - I'm slightly surprised they're not offering a 2015 - and we try some of them out. Well, they're so black and boiling they make Azerbaijan's Sevgilim offerings seem like Château Haut-Brion, but what do we expect?

'Have you tried the Malbec?' asks the ProBulkWine guy apprehensively.

It is not a good way to spend a Monday. 'I can't go on like this,' I say to my wife, some time later. 'I've got to aim higher.'

So why do I promptly buy half a dozen bottles of mixed grog from a Lidl in South Wales? I can't help myself: the prices are dream-like in their affordability. I pick up some all-purpose Claret for about tenpence a bottle, plus a knock-off Gewürztraminer for a bit more; and, best of all, a no-château St Emilion Grand Cru for what looks like an as-nothing £9.99. This is twice the price of the next most expensive wine, but I am so dazzled by the possibilities that I buy two bottles. It is only when I get home that I start to have my usual recidivist's second thoughts.

For a start, PK reminds me (if indeed I ever really knew) that virtually all St Emilions are Grands Crus. A trip to Berry Bros. & Rudd's website then yields the intelligence that the term Grand Cru in this case is 'Frankly misleading', being applied to 'wines that are often distinctly ordinary'. Oh, and the vintage: 2011. If I put it away for another four years, I might be on to something, but this is the real world, so four days is the limit.

I am determined to give it the best possible run-up, though. I try the giveaway Lidl claret first, in the hope that the comparison will flatter the St Emilion. How, I ask myself, can my plan fail? As it turns out, the Lidl claret bears the same relation to other clarets that instant coffee bears to proper coffee: it's a claret-flavoured beverage, ideal for when you're in too much of a hurry to open a bottle of real claret, or if you're happy to drink it while doing something else, like washing the car.

On to the St Emilion: no nose, followed by a lot of firm and fruity swillings plus charity-shop smell, ending with a blast of oven cleaner.

'I like where it's going,' I say. 'Give it a moment to develop.'

For £9.99 and a heritage label, I am willing my mind to triumph over my tongue. I pour out a glassful for No. 1 son, who also enjoys the pleasures of the table.

'It's robust,' I go on, 'it's characterful. Who doesn't enjoy drinking something that tastes a bit like fence paint? Nice colour, too.'
'Mm,' he says.
'Robust. Assertive. Grippy.' My tone becomes increasingly hysterical. Not only am I distanced from No. 1 son by age and parenthood, I am distanced by my own fixations. 'Thunderous. Multifaceted.'

I notice after half an hour or so, that he has barely touched his glass.

'I drank some Azerbaijani wine the other day,' I say, at last. 'And something called ProBulkWine.' But nothing can redeem my lost prestige, not after all this time, not even the stupidest wines in the world.


Thursday 12 June 2014

A suitable case…

When people ask me how I open my wine, I like to be able to reply, “With a hammer and chisel.”

Which is not to propose some brutal method of attacking the neck of bottles with DIY tools in a kind of low-rent sabrage. Simply to say that I like it when wine comes in wooden cases. And I feel somehow let down when I order wine and it comes in what can only be described as a cardboard box. 

(Because that’s what it is…)

The term ‘case’ is widely abused in the wine business. It fails as a description of quantity, since no-one seems able to decide whether a ‘case’ is the traditional 12 bottles or the more contemporary 6. The number of times I have looked at a case price, thought it looked good value, and then found that it was only half a dozen bottles and was actually very expensive. It’s as if someone decided that with certain ‘pairs’ of shoes, you only got one instead of two.

And the term ‘case’ similarly fails as a description of the container. To my mind, whether 12 bottles or 6, a cardboard box is not a case – it is a cardboard box. 

A wooden case indicates a serious wine. It immediately looks as if the wine is anticipating years of laying down, properly protected. You respect a wine in a wooden case, even if the wines inside sometimes only cost a tiny bit more and sometimes even less than the wines in a cardboard box, Mrs K, honestly.

When a wine is good, it surely merits a wooden case. It should, as Webster wrote of something else entirely, be cased up like a holy relic. 

Yet there seems no simple way of telling whether, if you order wine, it will arrive in a proper case or a cardboard box. You can ask, oh yes, but you run the risk of ending up in an awkward conversation when you reveal that the case forms part of your buying decision. After all, they’ll say, it’s one thing to judge a book by its cover; another entirely to make a judgment based on the jiffy-bag in which it comes.

But if wine is being marketed as a gift, the seller will make a point of saying that it comes in a wooden case. They will even put a single bottle in a wooden box to give it prestige as a gift. So, what about giving the wine prestige for oneself?

There seems no indication of when this insidious packaging switch took hold. From Kit-Kat bars to instant coffee jars, we have seen established packaging replaced by designs distinguished only by their ugliness. You try making a traditional Blue Peter piggy bank out of a modern Fairy Liquid bottle. 

(Apologies; as all Blue Peter viewers of a certain vintage will remember, I meant to say “squeezy bottle”.)

I’m sure there are both economic and environmental arguments in favour of the cardboard box, along with the disappearance of wooden fruit crates and tea chests. But there are some of us who wish to remain with the traditional wooden options. As with coffins for example; wicker may now be the final choice for some, but I do not wish to go under myself within an oversized picnic hamper.

Apart from looking good, wooden cases are enormously practical. They can be stacked in one’s cellar, just as they are; no need to rack the bottles. The challenge of taking tools to open them discourages one from sampling them prematurely – while finally opening them is an event in itself, a suitable herald to the conclusion of years of laying down.

And when they’re empty? I bash the end off, and have an attractive souvenir and addition to my cellar wall. As for the rest of the case, well, last winter, when people were raging about energy price increases, one local wine merchant had the clever wheeze of breaking up their wooden cases and putting them in front of the shop, with a sign: Firewood – free for pensioners. It made them look generous and considerate, as they clung to a passing bandwagon.

Believe me, this cardboard business is the thin end of the wedge. It won’t be long before someone has the smart idea of packaging bottles of wine like bottles of mineral water, in that impenetrable plastic shrinkwrapping. And when wine is finally reduced to that level of commodity packaging… don’t come crying to me.


Thursday 5 June 2014

Great Wine Moments In Movie History V - 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

You have to hand it to Stanley Kubrick: his hit rate was amazingly high. Once you get past a clutch of early-Fifties apprentice works (Flying Padre; The Seafarers, anyone?) and onto The Killing of 1956, just about all his movies were international successes (Spartacus; 2001; The Shining; Dr. Strangelove), or, failing that, technically groundbreaking (Barry Lyndon; The Shining, again), or at the very least, magisterially controversial (Lolita; A Clockwork Orange). And of the big hits, 2001 - the only one with an Academy Award - scoops the trifecta on account of being an international success, a technical tour de force and, for over forty years, a source of chronic, aggrieved, debate.

After all, what the hell's it about? Yes, a sleek black monolith - as it might be, a support for the refurbished Hammersmith Flyover - makes timely appearances in the course of mankind's evolution from ape hominid to intergalactic starchild. But the narrative (if indeed it is the narrative) is so stately, so glazed with symbolism, that, for all its musicality and its frigid beauties, it quickly becomes (in the wrong hands) a Sixties chess challenge, a revenant culture puzzle with a top dressing of A Saucerful of Secrets.

The last ten minutes of the movie were the trickiest part of Kubrick's overall plan, and certainly provide the most fruitful ground for disagreement. These are the moments where astronaut Bowman (played by the intentionally interest-free Keir Dullea) disappears through the acid-trip star gate and ends up in a denatured Louis XVI hotel room with a spooky light-box floor. A series of enigmatic visual translations gets him out of his space suit and into the room, where he ages, dies, and at the moment of contact with the monolith, superevolves.

But just before that, he eats a meal. And not a Soylent Green-style putty, such as he and his colleague, Poole, have been stoically scarfing up while on board the big spaceship. This is a daintily-served main course, on a table, with some greens and a bread roll, and a glass of white wine (Why not red, to match his space suit? Or betoken blood? Wrong visual register?). The ageing Bowman takes a swig of the wine (a nice Pouilly-Fumé let's say) and forks in some greens. He eats with pensive slowness. With the edge of his hand, he accidentally knocks the wine glass over. The glass shatters on the glowing floor. He leans over and stares at the breakage for a full fifteen seconds, before lifting his gaze to see himself, lying on his own deathbed.

What does the bedroom mean? What does the meal mean? What the shattering of the wine glass? The critic Roger Ebert got out of it at the time by interpreting the whole environment as a 'Non-descriptive symbol'; while Kubrick himself kept questioners at bay by talking about 'Areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer'.

Move on to the present day, however, and it's open season: one online obsessive claims that the shattering of the glass is a concretion of Bowman himself breaking 'The film's visual code'; another argues that it refers to the Jewish tradition of smashing a wine glass at a wedding; 'Even after all that he has been through Bowman still makes mistakes,' asserts another; yet another ties it with a thousand knots to the Kabbalah and the Philospher's Stone; 'The symbolism is related to the smashing of the Coke machine in Dr. Strangelove,' says one nutter, somewhere; 'I should have read the book,' admits a straggler on reddit; and so on.

The thing is, it is clearly wine - suggesting a return to a more harmonious, pre-technological existence (also implied by the curly furniture and the dodgy Old Masters on the walls), as well as hinting at liturgical overtones/ritual sensibilities/cultural centrality. And the glass falls and shatters: a sign that things are about to move from one state to the next, causing Kier Dullea (with that sinister overgrown-baby look, like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange) to give it his fifteen seconds of attention, before transubstantiating into a starchild and bringing the movie to a close.

We know that the last things anyone will find in a Kubrick movie, are unintended things. We also know that one of the things 2001 is not terribly much about, although not not about, is food and drink. And yet the last thing we see Bowman do is knock over a glass of wine.

I think I've said enough.