Thursday 17 December 2015

Raise a glass to 2015

As PK would say, It is time to reflect upon this last year, during which the Royal Mail again failed to deliver the letter notifying him of his appearance in the forthcoming New Year’s Honours List. Or, as CJ would say, So.

This time last year our book had just come out. Having appeared at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, and the Chiswick Book Festival, we were delighted to be listed among the Drinks Books of the Year in both The Independent and the London Evening Standard – and even more delighted to receive the John Avery award at the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards.

We were also shortlisted for the Born Digital Wine Awards, and the IWSC Blogger of the Year – and we finished the year being ushered into the company of the wine Establishment, and appearing in Decanter magazine.

From which pinnacle we bid farewell to 2015.  We now owe it to ourselves to drink as much as possible over the festive season, rendering us incapable of producing the blog until the New Year. And while we’re tidying up in the aftermath, we’re going to refurbish the Sediment site.

Thank you for reading, and we’ll see you in 2016.


Thursday 10 December 2015

Christmas Grog: Some Survivors

So it's all well and good for PK to spend his days inwardly debating the pros and cons of which shape of decanter would best suit the fine Bordeaux he's going to serve up at his charming, thoughtful, adults-only Christmas Dinner, peopled by wine conoisseurs, former members of the Diplomatic Corps, academics, senior police officers, Anglican clergymen, newspaper proprietors, Members of the Privy Council, international financiers, UN dignitaries and all the other inhabitants of the fiction factory inside his head, but the rest of us have to live in that land of broken dreams and dishonoured promises known as the real world.

Which for me means spending nearly all of Christmas on the M4 motorway, dragging the family from my Ma's house (junction 15) to my Pa-in-Law's house (at the absolute fag-end of the M4, where it gives up entirely and becomes the A477) in a welter of recriminations and mislaid Christmas gifts. Given that my Ma has no properly functioning oven and some highly contingent hotplates, the main job will be to get some kind of edible turkey on the table before the Queen starts her speech. Which means, I guess, cooking the thing back here in London and rushing it on Christmas morning smoking and steaming like a newly-crashed meteor down to Gloucestershire, while at the same time conjuring some sprouts from nowhere and possibly microwaving the pudding, if the microwave still works. Equally, we may just have to cook the whole meal on my Ma's toaster.

In this context, wine is so far from the centre of my thoughts that it might as well not exist. Some things are known: my Ma likes white wine, Blossom Hill for preference, but her new regime of pills might not allow her to drink anything stronger than cocoa; the wife likes an vanishingly narrow range of sparkling whites, probably a Cremant de Limoux if we have any choice, but that's it; the boys drink anything, as do I, so we can make the most of the stuff still lying around from last Christmas, plus any petrol-station reds picked up beforehand; my Pa-in-Law (when we get down to his place on Boxing Day) is wedded to all wines which are Primitivo-based and have a massively high alcohol content; while his partner is a brand-label white enthusiast, whatever the meal, lamb, wild boar, buffalo, it's all good. She, fortunately, is a handy cook and has a modern kitchen too, so the food is no longer a worry once we have butched it out as far as the Welsh wasteland that is our ultima thule. All I then have to do is smuggle something red at 13% or less into the house and keep it by my side throughout The Alamo (BBC2) and Stars In Their Eyes Celebrity Special (ITV1), so that by December 28th, I might be able to look forward to the rest of my life again.

Have we ever managed a PK fantasy-style grownups' Christmas? I don't think so, not even in that protean decade between the end of studenthood and the time when I started a family of my own. My Ma has always been a resentful and haphazard cook (bless her), blaming her ineptitude on having grown up in a household with servants, while my Pa didn't know one end of a wine bottle from the other and didn't terribly care either. If we got through Christmas Day without searing indigestion or a crippling headache, it was a result. Later on, when it came to hosting Christmas ourselves, us, the younger generation, it was just one smouldering crisis after another followed by a huge amount of washing-up. As a consequence, when Nigella Lawson talks about there being so much food to celebrate at Christmas, it makes me want to cack.

What then must we do? Treat the drink as an analgesic, principally, but with seasonal overtones. The Russians, I feel, would understand, both the nature of the suffering and its remedy: the situation we find ourselves in is absurd and inescapable; we must therefore be courageously nihilistic in our response. The snows lie deep around Yasnaya Polyana, but deeper yet in the car park of the Leigh Delamere motorway services.


Thursday 3 December 2015

Why pairing's a prickly subject

I do get a bit fed up with all this food and wine pairing business, suggesting dishes I could never cook, or which were last served in Downton Abbey. And it reaches a frenzy around this time of year. What goes with turkey? What goes with turkey and  cranberry sauce? And stuffing? And parmesan sprouts? And penury?

What of the comment by one wine writer this Christmas, that Kanonkop Kadette 2013 “likes to be drunk with spice-rubbed lamb.” Oh does it, indeed? Heaven forbid I might serve it with something else, and upset the wine

In the States, they have now run out of sensible foodstuffs for their legions of wine writers to write pairing articles about. As a consequence,  they have reached the absurd level of proposing wines to pair with sweets. It beggars belief that anyone old enough to drink wine would be childish enough to go around “trick or treating” for “Halloween candy”, but there we are. Out of interest, they suggest a Twix is best suited to either a bold red, or a dessert wine, which sounds like really covering your options. And next time you want to open a fine bottle of claret, you might like to know that they suggest pairing cabernet sauvignon with M&Ms.

But all of these start from the premise that the important thing is to match wine to food. Surely there are other issues which are just important in matching wine to a particular gathering?

Take, for example, the décor. Surely a wine has to pair with the table on which it will sit? Think, for example, of a dinner table like my father-in-law’s, with its mahogany polished like a mirror, and candlelight flickering in the crystal glasses. To stand in those silver bottle coasters, a wine needs drypoint images on the label, and serif typefaces. Heaven forfend a screwcap. And as for one of those colourful modern labels? Well, why not just have done with it, forgo the silver cellars, and put the Saxa salt drum on the table?

Although of course, there may be circumstances in which a dose of such loud garishness may be just the thing to pair with your evening. Perhaps you have a bunch of students coming round? Or Timmy Mallett

Yes, do consider the personality of the guests. There may be some people who are immensely entertained by “humorous” wine labels, and whose merry laughter compensates for the taste of shoddy wine. However, such people are not in my own social circle, and the sound I imagine hearing is of choking rather than chuckling. Such wines do not match with my guests, or indeed me, and I must stress that, however well it might go with the food, I would not be remotely amused by anyone bringing to my house a bottle of Old Git.

Consider also the nationality of one’s companions. Mrs K and I recently went to an excellent dinner party with a French host. It seemed to me that it would be vulgar to take a French wine. Shouldn’t you suggest that someone knows more about their own, indigenous product than you possibly can? As, in fact, it turned out.

Of course, no matter how well it paired with the food, the height of rudeness would presumably have been to take a French host a New World wine. Our own French host served his own French wine, and tactfully explained that, sadly, he was given a headache by any wines from places which began and ended with the letter A – Australia, Argentina, America…

But if you are matching wines to events, there are some occasions when a New World wine is absolutely correct. For instance, it is surely not done to pair Old World wines with a barbeque. The Old World is still thrilling to its invention of the indoor oven. Outdoor cooking events pair well with wines from the New World, where such occasions are enjoyed, as presumably they are still short of indoor cooking facilities.

Perhaps we have put the cart before the horse on this one. If we are serious about good wines for special occasions, then surely the wine is more important than the course it accompanies? Let’s face it, it may well cost more. So why don’t we choose our wine first, to match all the characteristics of the occasion, and then choose a food which shows it off at its best?

And no, I don’t need a wine pairing for cheval.


Don't miss our feature in the new issue of Decanter magazine (January 2016): The Perils of a Wine-lover's Christmas

Thursday 26 November 2015

Saw This And Thought Of You: The Sediment Gift Catalogue

So with Christmas just around the corner, what better time to bring out the Sediment seasonal catalogue, half-full of tempting stocking-fillers and can't-live-without Christmas treats? Well, almost any time would be better, given that it's already too late in the day and that I have no idea where these items are to come from, or how they are to be paid for, or made, or where, indeed, we would keep them if we had them. Perhaps if we look at this as a first installment for the 2016 gift catalogue, it might make more sense.

At any rate, this is where we are so far:

Sediment Pour Homme: the fragrance no wine lover will want to be without - a unique and seductive creation for the man who knows how to enjoy the finer things in life and roughly how much to pay for them. With its keynotes of cinnamon, warm horse, jacket patches, patchouli, cooking sherry, old briar pipes, dung beetle and spilled claret, it announces you to the world in a way that no other men's perfume can. Stand out and express your inner Sediment this Christmas!
50ml bottle: £75.00
150ml gift presentation bottle: £145.00

Electronic Salutation Coaster: Bored with your iWatch? Jaded by your drone? Then how about this electronic marvel - it looks like an ordinary round metal coaster with Fin-de-Siècle filigree decoration and a disconcertingly thick base, but prepare to be amazed as soon as you lift up your glass: it says Cheers! loudly and clearly, in a variety of regional accents. Even better - when you replace the glass, it rewards you with a lip-smacking Aaaah! of pleasure. Not enough? Then take it to the next level with the Electronic Salutation Coaster Executive Edition. This can be programmed to announce, among other salutations, Bottoms Up, Prosit, A Votre Santé, Mud In Your Eye, Salud, Sláinte, Down The Little Red Lane We Go, Skol, L'Chaim, Here's Peering Up Your Poncho Pancho, Tvajo Zdarovye and many others.
Standard Electronic Salutation Coaster: £150.00
Executive Edition: £175.00

CJ & PK Monogrammed Sediment Socks: Tired of trying to remember which is your left foot and which the right? Want to show your loyalty to Sediment but don't know how? Sort out both problems in one go with these fabulous hand-embroidered cashmere socks - the left bearing the initials CJ, the right nattily adorned with PK. Simply put CJ on the left foot each time you get dressed, and the rest will follow. Impress your friends with your unique sense of style at the same time as you banish left foot/right foot anxiety!
Per pair: £15.00
Special gift 3-pack: £35.00
Special gift 3-pack plus 150ml gift presentation bottle of Sediment Pour Homme: £165.00

Grand Theft Merlot: Engrossing, fast-paced, shoot-em-up video game, developed in collaboration with Sediment, specifically to get the kids to take an interest in fine wines. Grand Theft Merlot puts you literally in the driving seat as you fight your way through the criminal ranks, running shoplifting raids for Blossom Hill at the local Costcutter, before moving up to a Tesco Metro and half-a-dozen Wolf Blass Cabernet Sauvignons, then Majestic Wines and a smash-and-grab on a whole case of good value Chilean Reds - until at last you're ready to challenge the real wine kingpins with a well-thought-out selection of reds, whites and sparklings from Berry Bros & Rudd, some for laying down, some for drinking straight away, all of them acquired with the aid of guile, Hugh Johnson's Wine Atlas, gunfire, sexy girls, tasting notes and fast cars!
Age 18+
Platforms: PlayStation 4, XBox 360
Price: £40.00

Sediment Miniature Wine Rack: Nowhere to put your collection of 18.7cl mini bottles (or smaller) of fine wines? Tired of bunching them together in confusion at the back of a cupboard? The Sediment Miniature Wine Rack is here to save the day. No bigger than 40cm x 40cm x 20cm, this tiny but perfectly crafted teak-effect oenophile's wonder holds 36 mini bottles, keeping them in perfect condition for that special moment when only a very small bottle of Campo Viejo Rioja will do. So compact that you can keep it on your coffee-table; so elegant and practical, all your friends will want one!
Price: £65.00
Deluxe Walnut Effect: £120.00

You see what I'm getting at? Let me tell you, if this initial selection sounds exciting, then wait until next year. Or 2017. No later than December 2018, I absolutely guarantee. In fact, you could send us the money now, seriously.


Thursday 19 November 2015

Now, don't get carried away…

This charge on plastic carrier bags has hit wine buyers harder than most High Street shoppers.

Those outside the UK need to know that our big retailers are now charging 5p for each plastic carrier bag. They could, of course, provide free paper  bags – but they don’t. Arrive at the checkout without your own bag, and it’s a 5p carrier, or nothing. There are exceptions, so you can still get free plastic bags for raw fish, raw meat, and of course those staple purchases, corms or rhizomes. But not wine.

The thing is, winelovers don’t necessarily go out prepared to carry wine. But you pass a supermarket, and they’re shouting about a reduction, so you pop in just to have a look, just to keep your eye in, and lo and behold, there’s something interesting on offer.

It’s all very well walking home with an unbagged pint of milk or a loaf of bread. Everyone assumes you were just caught short. But, can you be caught short of wine? As far as I’m concerned, that’s just casting aspersions on my cellar.

And people don’t see wine as an impulse purchase, except by those whose impulses require a spell in rehab.

You might say that if you’re spending £10 on a bottle of wine, then 5p on a bag in which to carry it is a minute fiscal addition. Well, I make that 0.5%, which thanks to the current interest rates is what my bank will currently give me if I save that £10 for an entire year. And they advertise that as being an immensely attractive, significant sum. Which obviously I am not going to blow all at once on a wild extravagance like a carrier bag.

But unless you do, it can be more than a little awkward, walking up the High Road carrying a naked bottle of wine.

Your purchase may be utter rubbish, bought because it’s on offer, and because you really are intending to cook with it, honestly. But there you have to go, announcing your poverty and/or poor judgment to all and sundry. Every passer-by is going to think you’re an ignoramus. Or a mug.

(What do you mean, people don’t judge people that way by the wine they’re carrying? I certainly do…)

And can you bear the look on your regular wine merchant’s face as you walk past his frontage bearing a supermarket bargain? You… traitor! He wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a supermarket bag, because he’d assume it contained a entirely different bottle, like olive oil, or bleach. (Although given some supermarket wines, you might be hard pushed to tell the difference…)

Alternatively, the wine you’re carrying may be reasonably good, rendering you a target for those snatch thieves on bicycles and scooters, Okay, they do normally grab mobile phones or watches, but they may be misled by the potential value of a bottle of Burgundy. They wouldn’t be the first to confuse a bottle of DRC with a basic Pinot Noir…

You’ve also got to decide how to carry your naked bottle. Cradled to the chest like a newborn? Inappropriate for anything less cherished than a Grand Cru Classé. The clench around the body? Gives a look of grim determination as if you are wielding a weapon. The carefree swinging by the neck? Not recommended for sparkling wines, as the ejaculatory opening employed by F1 drivers is not popular in social circles which favour interior décor.

Winebuyers had, in fact, become accustomed to a degree of bagging generosity. Check-out assistants would actually offer to double up bags, in order to make them stronger, and ensure your bottles got home safely. Supermarkets loved winebuyers.

So perhaps wine is a significant enough purchase for a supermarket to graciously say, do you know what, we’ll  pick up the charge on this bag, sir. Thanks for spending more than the average customer’s entire supermarket spend on just a couple of bottles of wine; we’re so grateful you bought them from us that we’ll let you have the bags gratis, and pay the charge ourselves.

Or perhaps another exception could be extended to winebuyers? For instance, there is no charge on bags for prescription medicines. I assume this is because people would be embarrassed holding a product boldly announcing some kind of personal problem. But in fact, most medicines fit into a pocket; and if you need so much Anusol that it won’t fit in your pocket then you’ve got far more than just embarrassment to worry about.

Couldn’t the embarassment exception be extended to winebuyers like me?

And then I can walk up the High Road again, carrying my wine in a free carrier bag. Like a purchaser of fresh meat. Or Anusol. 

Like a rhizome cowboy.


Thursday 12 November 2015

Disappearing Act: Blason de Bourgogne Chablis

So after all this time plugging away at Sediment, how much free promotional drink have we managed to acquire? Candidly: we've had eight bottles. Eight bottles between the two of us. Over five years. And three of those were supplied in an access of pity by another, more successful, blog. I mean, this was one of the principal reasons for doing it in the first place, to get free samples, because otherwise what's the point? It's not even as if we have any scruples which might have landed us in this position. We'll take anybody's drink, whatever it is, provided it doesn't cost anything and we don't have to collect it. But the drink almost never comes.

Given that this is underwhelmingly where we are, you'd think I might make a better job of the one freebie which has come my way this year, and yes, I'm talking about Blason de Bourgogne Chablis which arrives courtesy of the altogether unimprovable Cube Communications, complete with a first-rate instructions sheet (the wine is 'Fine-boned and pure') plus tasting notes ('crystalline purity to the nose', 'crunchy orchard fruits', 'linear') so I don't have to do any thinking. And it tells me to pair it with 'a shellfish platter and goats' cheese', with that sophisticated positioning of the apostrophe to indicate that I'm the kind of guy who eats cheeses made from the milk of more than one goat, so freebooting yet discerning is my palate.

So. I go and get my bottle, which has been delivered to PK's house, but which I feel does not technically put it in breach of the no collection rule.

'You are going to write about it?' PK says, clearly thinking that it's something he'd be better suited to.
'Of course,' I say, taking the bottle home, placing it reverentially in my empty wine rack, admiring its sleek proportions and dignified labelling, and then forgetting about it.

A few of days later, in an abstracted state, I pull the thing out, chill it, open it, and drink about half the contents. I have nothing with which to write any tasting notes; in fact, I am barely aware of what I am drinking, other than to observe that it has a cork, not my usual style, and goes down without making my eyes water or my chest clench, again, not my usual style. I dispatch the rest a day or so after that, still only half-aware that this is a quality wine - which means that either it isn't a quality wine at all and that its virtues are so modest they barely cut through the dull ache which I recognise as consciousness; or that I can no longer tell the difference between good and bad wines. The latter seems more compelling, but whatever else, it certainly means that I have taken my one authentic gift of the year and squandered it. I have also thrown away the piece of paper containing crystalline purity. And the bottle. In fact, the Blason de Bourgogne Chablis might as well not have existed.

Then, of course, PK starts enquiring after it, have I drunk it yet, how am I finding it? I am now a fourteen year old schoolboy, obliged to explain that not only have I not done the homework, but have lost the materials I needed to do it with. This is clearly a huge test of PK's inner decency, but instead of punching me or storming out of the room, he re-supplies the peripheral material while stopping short of letting me have his bottle of Blason de Bourgogne Chablis in order that I might re-taste the wine I forgot to taste while I was tasting it. All I can do now is summon up a ghost memory of linearity, oh, and 'green leaves' which are 'draped around a steely core of minerality'. And I'm not saying it didn't possess any of those characteristics.

I can see that if you wanted to promote a wine, then Sediment, on this showing, might not be the best shop window. What can I do? How can I reclaim the integrity which I have clearly abandoned, not just in PK's eyes, but in the eyes of Cube Communications, assuming they're paying any attention to this, and French winemakers generally? This is what happens when you let your standards slip: I've not only let PK down, I've let down the makers of Blason de Bourgogne Chablis, and, worst of all, I've let myself down. Although, let's not kid ourselves, that last one happens most days anyway.


Thursday 5 November 2015

Cases dismissed – Majestic Wine Warehouse

To celebrate their new pricing policy, I set off to walk to Majestic. It’s a longish way, but this time I can walk. Because I won’t have to walk back again lugging half a dozen bottles. I can buy just one.

Last week, Majestic Wine Warehouse decided to abandon its “minimum six bottles” rule, and allow customers to buy single bottles of wine. But this change in policy unleashed a surprising stream of pent-up anger; there were uniformly negative comments about Majestic when the Daily Telegraph reported the change.

So remind me. Why in the first place would you want to shop for wine in a warehouse?

Surely a warehouse is the sort of place to which you go for building supplies. Planks, gravel, some forbetwos, a couple of soggy chimps and a forty-eight foot bastard.

Yet, anticipating a sophisticated dinner party, you set off for a warehouse. Somewhere semi-industrial, with the striplighting of a penal institution. Where the staff wear not the striped shirts or even artisan aprons of wine merchants, but fleeces, because they’ve supposedly just finished work on the fork-lift outside. A warehouse, where you can wander through stacks of boxes and bottles, piled up to head height on industrial pallets. Ah, the sophistication of wine…

Why did we undertake this grim exercise? Because we believed that, by buying in bulk, from a warehouse, we enjoyed a discount unavailable to those buying only single bottles. It was a similar premise to a cash-and-carry, only with the added cachet of saying that you were buying “a case of wine”, which sounds classier than a multipack.

There was also a feeling that you were somehow beating the system, that you were shopping higher up the supply chain, virtually from the back of a cross-Channel HGV. And that in a basic warehouse rather than a stylish shop, you weren’t paying for needless fripperies, like shelves.

All of this was understood when the minimum purchase was a twelve-bottle case. You took your car, because the warehouse was appropriately stuck out on a grim drag of town alongside storage units and car dealers. Or out on a retail estate, next to Sofa Land and Oak Furniture Land, out in the Land of Lands.

And having gone through this whole unappealing and time-consuming process, you wouldn’t return home without something to justify the trip; so when that “something” had to be twelve bottles, if you went at all you always came back with a case.

In recent years, Majestic dropped their minimum purchase to six bottles. Okay, wine is an industry which seems unable to decide whether a case is six bottles or twelve. And they produced divided carriers, so that you could leave the car at home and lug six bottles back home by hand, presumably whistling and clanking like a milkman.

(For younger readers I should explain that a “milkman” was someone who used to provide sexual favours to housewives, under cover of distributing bottles of milk to their doors.)

But now, Majestic are allowing you to buy just one, single bottle. Which means they are going to be compared to those popular neighbourhood retail concepts, shops. And without the requirement of buying an entire case, suddenly the warehouse concept seems rather absurd.

It emphasises quantity over quality, the canyons of boxes only underlining the gallons of the stuff they are trying to shift. It’s like walking through that Tate installation. 

The bottles on your average merchant’s shelf may be just the visible edge of a cellarful of stock, but at least that visible edge looks limited and desirable. The lighting in a shop is akin to a dining room, and not to a HMRC confiscation unit. And the staff in a wine merchant’s look as if they might actually come for a dinner party, rather than come to tidy the garden.

And then there’s the pricing. Because in a wine shop, there is usually a price on the shelf, and then a discount if you buy a case. At Majestic, the prominent price is, still, the discounted bulk price.

Which inevitably leads you to consider what the wines are actually worth. If somewhere permanently offers 25% off their wine when you buy six bottles, then presumably that is actually the price at which their business operates. That is, in my language, the regular price of the wine. And you’re simply a mug if you buy a single bottle – or, indeed, up to five bottles – and pay a punitive 25% more.

So I walked all the way back again, emptyhanded, unwilling to pay 25% over the regular price of a wine for the privilege of buying a single bottle. (If only the excellent piece on their prices by Geordie Clarke had appeared before I set off…)

Yes, you can now buy a single bottle of wine from Majestic. But in a set-up where everything, from the location to the presentation to the pricing itself, is still geared towards bulk purchase – why would you do that?


Thursday 29 October 2015

A Meal At PK's House: Haut-Médoc 2005

This week's style icon: Cormac McCarthy

They drew up outside the house later that evening. The wind had got up and was stirring the plane trees and the ragged fescues growing between the stones. As they stepped out of the car, a squall hit them, spattering the night with leaves and rain and odd speckled shadows thrown by the electric lights like some ancient painting done in a time when there had been no buildings between them and the river. Away in another county, the horses stirred in their dark stabling and nickered and rubbed their flanks against the estacada.

PK opened the front door. The light from the hallway broke over them, revealing Mrs K standing some way behind, elegant, her large dark serious eyes taking them in. They had lit the heating for their guests, but the house was still cool and PK wore a charcoal colored jersey and shook hands with CJ and formally kissed Mrs J and Mrs K kissed them both and said that they were to admire the new floor which had been laid in the kitchen and the eating area. They solemnly looked at it and envied its smooth conformities, unlike the sad ruins which they had left behind in their own place.

That's a hell of a floor, said CJ.
Aint it though.
Must of cost a couple weeks' wages.

PK said nothing and they sat down to eat. The food was delicious, delicate cheese-flavored hojaldres followed by a stew of wine and beef and a lemon cream served in small white pots, one for each guest, and the utensils were new and hard to master, and after some time they spoke of the game known as fútbol and the women spoke of other, graver, matters and then they spoke of the wine which PK had brought out and placed upon the table like a monstrance, that they should see it in its particularity and uniqueness.

Must of cost a couple weeks' wages too.
You got me.
What's its name?
Chateau Tour du Haut Moulin 2005.
Where'd you get it at?
Some place.
Aint my usual.
You better believe that. You want some more?
I'm full as a tick.
Of the wine.
I believe I do.
You're gettin it down.
I'm next the heater. I'm dry.

It was a dark and withholding wine whose secrets did not make themselves clear at first but only later told of the earth in which the grapes once grew and the strange sense of a faded tapestry such as travellers might find in an abandoned homestead on the mesa. It left a black residue on the sides of their glasses.

Could plant a whole stand of cottonwoods in there. You got any more?
I'll see.

PK got up from the table and was gone some time and when he returned he held in his hand another bottle which he said was Taste the Difference and was not the same kind of wine. It had no cork, only a metal cap to plug the contents. He unscrewed the cap with a snapping noise before pouring the drink into their glasses.

Take a fresh glass, you dont want that shit in there.

CJ made a face as he tasted the new wine and looked for somewhere to spit it out but there was nowhere, only the smooth dark floor divided into even squares with thin cream lines between the squares and although they had said these squares could not be stained by wine or blood, still he felt uneasy at the thought of spitting the red wine out and made himself drink it down. He turned to PK.

That's somethin.
I wont dispute it.

PK held the bottle towards the light and looked at it and held his head at an angle and shook it as if the bottle had told him a lie of some kind.

You think this is okay?
I dont know.
Maybe it wants some time.
How much time we got?
I dont know.

By now they had eaten the last of the meal and they brought out coffee and spoke of the great sorrowfulness of the world. Outside the storm had abated and a thin clear moon could be seen among the shifting banks of cloud while the rainwater shivered in pools and the people of the town began to make their way home in the darkness. The women stopped talking and looked at the men.

Do you believe in fate, said Mrs J.
No mam.
Neither do I. That is why we must leave.

The complexities of that remark stayed with PK and CJ a long time, long after they had parted in that same hallway and CJ and Mrs J had said their thanks and remarked a last time on the beauty of the floor. Then they headed south towards the river which lay like a rope uncoiled and passing between the lives of those who had grown up beside it.


Thursday 22 October 2015

Does giving mean taking? – Trusting in St Emilion

A weekend on the South Coast, including lunch at friends, and a new twist on the old dilemma of which wine to take as a gift. Do I really have to carry a bottle all that way on public transport?

Now that you can’t carry bottles of wine back home in an airplane, I’d forgotten just how heavy they are in an overnight bag. Never one to stint on clothing options, I was already weighed down in case of an unpredicted storm or, alternatively, heatwave, let alone the impossibility of precisely interpreting the dress code, “relaxed”. So really, the last thing I wanted was the additional weight, let alone breakage hazard, of a bottle of wine.

The obvious solution was to find a wine shop at our destination, and buy a bottle there.

Now once, Mrs K and I were walking towards a neighbour’s dinner party, when we met another couple of mutual friends from the other side of London. They were walking from the tube station, but in the opposite direction, towards us. It soon emerged that all four of us were actually going to the same dinner party. We therefore pointed out helpfully that they were walking the wrong way.

Ah, they said, but isn’t there a wine shop in that direction, where they could buy a bottle to take as a gift?

Something about this manoeuvre seemed both disturbingly calculated, and frighteningly risky. Travelling comfortably to a dinner party, yes, without lugging a bottle all the way across London. Smart move. But then, relying on finding your gift on arrival. Having to buy whatever a local wine shop could offer, with no opportunity to shop around. Possibly turning up with a bottle you couldn’t talk about, or even recommend yourself, because it’s a wine you didn’t actually know.

No, I would usually rather rely upon my little cellar to provide dinner party gifts; not only do I know what it has to offer, but providing gifts helps to mitigate its existence to Mrs K. Failing that, there is a reliably good wine merchant on my High Road. Giving a decent bottle invariably means taking one with me. And so I will carry a bottle all the way, advertising our social life to everyone on public transport. Even if it does alert potential cutpurses that I might be worth a few bob, in the unlikely event that any mugger is familiar with the 1855 classification.

But in this case, the weight and distance were just too much. I would have to trust to finding a wine shop in this South Coast town. It would be what I believe they call… an adventure.

I soon learnt that to Mr Google, with all his infinite variety, the term “wine shop” covers a multitude of sins. There was nowhere whose name offered that comforting confusion with a legal practice.

The first establishment to which it steered me was little better than a newsagent; it did, presumably, meet the technical description, in that you could shop for wine there, but not for a wine you would drink with anyone else, unless you were drinking together on a bench. And the second, despite actually calling itself a wine shop, was basically an off-licence, specialising in beer, baccy and Blossom Hill.

Fortunately the third was an actual wine shop; if a bit young and enthusiastic, keen on hipster varieties and distinctly lacking in traditional wines (‘because it’s so hard to get the value in Bordeaux these days’ – well, tell me about it…) Instead, they had the familiar glossy culprits from the New World, the Cloudy Bays, Chocolate Blocks and d’Arenbergs. At least those give you some kind of pricing benchmark. (Dead Arm at £34.95? Ouch.)

But when you’ve taken a chance on finding a decent wine shop at all, you’re going to play safe on your choice of wine as a gift. Arrive bearing a bottle labelled St Emilion Grand Cru Classé, and most recipients are going to feel you’re knowledgeable, grateful and generous. Just how I like to be regarded. 

And you know what you're going to get. No matter what you tell me about that Ruritanian organic wine, I am not taking it to my friends for lunch if its main description is that it’s “interesting…”.

So I settled for Chateau Mangot 2009, a St Emilion somewhat ambitiously priced at £24.95. And the assistant stifled my financial concerns and sent me off instead with an indulgently warm feeling, easily awarded by simply saying, “Good choice, sir!”

Well, if I say so myself, it was. Because it was soft and smooth and rich and smoky and all the things you want from a mature claret for a Sunday lunch. And the hostess said it was lovely, when she managed to get a glass in between her husband and me polishing off the rest.

I would never wish to associate myself with the English tourists who eat egg and chips in Spain. But when you’re in strange territory, there is comfort to be found in the familiar. Even in the most exciting young wine shops, there’s a place for traditional wines, which establish a benchmark of knowledge (and price) by which first-time customers can measure the offering. 

And yes, for meeting situations like mine. When you’re looking for a gift, a traditional wine is hard to beat. A safe bet, maybe, but a good choice indeed.


Thursday 15 October 2015

Great Wine Moments In Movie History VII: An Eternal Golden Braid

...Caché (2005): This wonderfully unsettling psychological thriller from Michael Haneke, deconstructs the supercomfortable middle-class wolrd of Daniel Auteuil, menaced by a hidden observer with a surveillance camera. Terrible truths are, inevitably, revealed. Being a film about well-heeled French domestic life - however threatened - it also contains several eating and drinking moments, and some handsome red wines: one of the absolute cornerstones of French culture, invisibly corrupted, as it turns out, by the invisible presence of Auteuil's stalker. That's how dreadful the threat is: even the innocent, pleasurable, wine becomes a part of it. So what antidote can there be to this existential terror?

Carry On Up The Khyber (1968): Best of the Carry Ons by a considerable margin, not least because of the celebrated sequence at the end of the film in which Sid James, Joan Sims and the rest, plough (with full decorations) through a formal British Raj dinner, under heavy bombardment from an army of enraged tribesmen led by the Khasi of Kalabar (Kenneth Williams) and his lieutenant, Bungdit Din (Bernard Bresslaw). Bottles explode with shot, the chandelier crashes from the ceiling onto the table centrepiece, the orchestra is hit by a mortar shell, but the civilities never waver - not least in the the consoling and civilising presence of fine wines, a countervailing force against the dark barbarism outside. Clarets, from the look of them. Lady Ruff-Diamond (Sims), picking a chunk of ceiling from her pompadour hairstyle: 'Oh dear! I seem to have got a little plastered!'

Bicycle Thieves (1948): But what if you are the outsider? What if you are marginalised - like the father and son in Vittorio de Sica's masterpiece? Wine becomes implicated in your misfortune, an index, even, of your poverty and despair. Father (Lamberto Maggiorani) treats son (Enzo Staiola) to a restaurant meal with wine, a consolation for their latest round of misfortunes. 'Let's forget everything and get drunk!' he cries. But the next table is occupied by a family of gallingly prosperous suburban Romans. Their wine is plentiful and arrives in smart bottles with labels; the father and son's comes in a greasy blank carafe. The father's good mood begins to slip away. Within minutes, he is compulsively rehashing the events that have led to his downfall - the theft of his bike, mainly - and outlining the humiliation that threatens to overwhelm them. The wine is a false friend, confirming the mood, rather than banishing it. 'We'll find it,' says the son, braver than his father, 'we'll go every day to the Porta Portese'. Do they get drunk? No. But Dumbo does.

Dumbo (1941): This is one which Disney himself had to finish off, when most of his studio went on strike. It is also the one in which Dumbo and his friend, Timothy Mouse, accidentally get soused on some leftover grog - resulting in the authentically troubling Pink Elephants On Parade sequence. As anyone with children will tell you, this is one of the hardest episodes in a cartoon film to explicate to a four-year-old - harder, in its way, than the death of Bambi's mother or the surprising uselessness of The Jungle Book. Its vertiginous transformations and distortions (multicoloured devil elephants, amoebal ghost elephants) have something of the Little Nemo cartoons, but without the charm; while the atmosphere of sick menace is as bad as anything from Max Fleischer. This is not drink as we know it. This is a trip to the pharmacopeia, and one which tells you a lot about America's grimly conflicted relationship with drink and self-loathing. Not entirely dispelled by

The French Connection (1971): Another great film: William Friedkin's best, Gene Hackman's best, an unimprovable car chase, and a terrific stake-out sequence with Popeye Doyle (Hackman) freezing his butt off as he watches bad guy Charnier (Fernando Rey) tuck into a gourmet meal in a discreetly sumptuous New York restaurant (actually the Copain). Hackman gnaws a congealing pizza and blows on his chapped fingers; Rey luxuriates in, yes, a fine wine, a wine whose very fineness indicates how terrible and heartless he can be. This is wine as metaphor for evil - rather a remorseless depiction, especially from the country which gave us Dean Martin, but there you are. There is no necessary benevolence in the drink after all - only the capacity to take on a moral colour from whatever its surroundings happen to be. Which leads us handily back to the bottle on the sleek Parisan dining table...


Thursday 8 October 2015

A site-specific wine – Barramundi

As falling temperatures and foggy mornings herald the arrival of our Autumn, what better time to put on to UK shelves a wine whose theme is…camping.

Perhaps the supermarket buyer did not notice that our summer is over. Or perhaps they thought that someone had launched a wine for people moving into a new house*, given that the label depicts a van with three tons of shite lashed to its roof.

But no, this is an Australian wine, with a theme of Australian camping. Which is around 10,000 miles away from the notion of camping in England right now.

“NEW!” shouts the collar band – unlike the exhausted old meme they then exploit: “Keep calm and go camping with Barramundi”.

“Perfect with sun, summer and BBQ steak”. Which in England puts it, oh, about four months out of date. Or perhaps someone thinks we will be transported as we drink this wine, from a warming Autumn supper under leaden English skies to a summer picnic at Hanging Rock?

And the problems are only just beginning. When people talk about the difficulty of interpreting wine labels, they are usually talking about the Bordeaux classification structure, or the complexity of German names. They are not usually talking about the English description on the back label. Did I say English? “Listen to the currawongs serenade as the sun goes down,” they suggest. “Just watch out for the bindi-eyes and mozzies!” I’m sorry, but this is gibberish.

Perhaps one might also enjoy this wine when the borogoves are mimsy, and the mome raths outgrabe?

They clearly have no idea about English camping. On our campsites, we do not listen to the currawongs, whatever they may be, serenade as the sun goes down. We listen to the singing of the drunken Mancs.

Barramundi seem to be arriving on campsite with half of their attic lashed to the top of their van. Poorly lashed, I will point out, before they head for our motorways and become an item on Police, Camera, Unstable Load.

Surfboard, shorts, barbeque equipment, picnic hamper, an electric fan, a cricket bat…it’s like a summer episode of The Generation Game. About the only thing relevant to the English outdoors is a pair of wellies. Oh, and a walkie-talkie, presumably to radio for evacuation.

Some of the things pictured on this label, if not actually banned, are guaranteed to bring misery to a British camping site. A saxophone! Someone walking on to a camping site carrying a saxophone would probably be assaulted. “Do you do requests, pal? Yeah? Well, why not have a go at putting that back in your van?”

And Barramundi also encourages you, while “lying on the grass”, to “Kick off your thongs,” which our site supervisors will be quick to point out refers in Australia to flip-flops, and not underwear.

Of course the wine itself is a Shiraz, the only varietal hefty enough to knock in tent pegs. And it’s pretty challenging; not one of those fat, comfortably soupy versions, presumably redolent of sluggish stay-at-homes, but sharper and more abrasive, with a catch in the throat.

But then, given the privations of food, comfort and hygiene that most campers are willing to endure, perhaps a degree of personal suffering in the wine is only appropriate?



*Actually, a wine aimed at people moving into a new house is rather a good idea, isn’t it? A suitable housewarming gift from neighbours, or something to share with one’s partner as you sit surrounded by boxes. Screwcap of course, because you won’t be able to find the corkscrew. That’s © Sediment, that one.

Thursday 1 October 2015

Flying Wine, Mostly Tempranillo

So the wife and I have just been on a quick trip to New York and naturally the one question worth answering is what kind of wine does British Airways serve? Since I only ever go steerage, my answer is necessarily reduced in scope, but on this occasion it was a Tempranillo rosé on the way out (perfectly drinkable, could have been a bit colder) and something called Cencibel red on the way back, which turned out to be Tempranillo by another name (perfectly drinkable, can't remember much about it, to be honest). Can we learn anything from this?

Well, the best in-flight wine I have ever had was on Qatar Airways. Nothing to do with the wine itself (it was red), but with the quantity. Instead of arriving in a Lilliputian screw-top bottle, it was poured out by hand from a big, proper, glass container, the wine brimming my plastic beaker, a real meniscus serving. In fact the stewardess said she wouldn't be back to give me a refill for some time, and would I like an extra beaker of wine there and then to keep me going? Obviously, I said Yes, and sat there with my crappy fold-down table luxuriously burdened with drink, feeling like a king.

Of course, it didn't much matter what was in the glass, as - we all know this, don't we? - your tastebuds are shot the moment you get into a plane. In-flight meals are massively sweeter and saltier than their ground-level equivalents, because you can barely taste anything in the dessicated, pressurised, environment of a jet, and the cook must compensate accordingly. At the same time, airlines avoid serving wines which are heavily tannic or acidic, because those flavours do persist: so a fruity Tempranillo is about right, whereas a Claret is not going to work, and champagne generally tastes lousy, even though it accords with that sexy jetset lifestyle we've been aspiring to since 1959.

Would I have had a better drinking experience if I'd been flying pre-Jet Age, pre-pressurisation, pre-War, in fact? Essentially, no. The earliest commercial flights - Croydon to Le Bourget, always a favourite - were appalingly noisy, cold, bumpy, and smelled of petrol. The old Imperial Airways planes could drop a hundred feet in a second when they hit turbulence, so going to the toilet was something you put off until Paris. Wines too would have been shaken to perdition, so the stock in-flight booze was lager beer and whisky. It got a bit better as the planes themselves improved, but there was still no real pleasure to be had, not until the Boeing 707 showed us how it should be done; by which time you could drink and eat what you liked, and it all tasted the same.

No: the way to drink wine is on an airship - and not just any airship, I mean the R101 and The Hindenburg would be poor choices in any event, no, it has to be the Graf Zeppelin, the behemoth of the skies from 1928 to 1937. This incredible vehicle - it was actually crowd-funded, you know - was seven hundred and seventy-six feet long and held nearly four million cubic feet of hydrogen. In its years of service it made just under six hundred flights, travelled over a million miles, carried more than thirteen thousand passengers, circumnavigated the globe, crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic, went to Brazil, Russia and the Arctic - without a single injury to passenger, crew or freight. A stupendous record: much of it due to Dr Hugo Eckener, legendary captain of the Graf, a man known as The Magellan of the Air, a giant in the history of flight. With Dr Eckener in charge, you might hit the odd spot of turbulence, or get held up by a squall line, or even spill your soup; but you would arrive in one piece.

Better yet, you would, with luck, have experienced a kind of travel which was authentically dream-like in its ease and strangeness. Not, it must be said, in northern latitudes, and not in winter: there was no heating on board, so you had to spend those flights wrapped in a leather overcoat and cashmere scarf, waiting for beef tea, but - anywhere warm, you could float a few hundred feet above the earth, with the windows open, listening to distant cow bells, the hum of traffic, even raised voices, with no sound audible from the remote airship engines; and you could sip, frankly, whatever wine you had brought with you. Hock was popular; even a white Burgundy might have survived. And afterwards, you could go and smoke yourself stupid in a pressurised, asbestos-lined smoking room, where electric cigarette lighters were your flame. Did it matter that you were, basically, attached to a gigantic floating bomb? As Lady Grace Drummond Hay, traveller and Zeppelin enthusiast put it: 'I cannot conceive a greater thrill'.