Thursday 29 January 2015

TV Wine: Industrial

So I'm sitting around trying to get through the remaining wine in my doomed winerack before I can give myself over to the sensuous realities of sheer gin, brooding at the same time over PK's own broodings on the conditions required for drinking wine in the bath, and wondering haphazardly if there are any activities which wouldn't be enhanced by drinking wine concurrently with the activity (with the proviso that in a couple of weeks it'll be gin, that most supersubtle of servants) and of course the good angel of my conscience comes up with the following: flying a passenger jet; surgery; operating heavy machinery; handling explosives; representing a disgraced celebrity in court.

Fair enough. But that still leaves plenty of things you can do with a glass of wine in your hand, a drink whose presence ought to enhance rather than disrupt. For instance: ever since they let you take a glass of wine in while you watched a movie, cinema has become twice the pleasure it was, or three times. Even a film as bewilderingly trite as The Theory Of Everything looks better through a disposable plastic goblet full of knockoff Merlot. So (I reason, briefly) the same must be true of TV, only more so, given that a) you can drink whatever wine you like, not just Dead Man’s Red at £5 a glass b) seating conditions are fractionally better even than in a really comfy cinema c) the choice of what to watch is so vast, there will always be some kind of happy wine/telly interface, no matter what the wine, no matter what the crap on TV. Wine and TV pairings! Of course! Why has no-one thought of this before?

Possibly because, on reflection, it doesn’t work. Seeing a movie in the cinema is an act full of positive elections, subtle mediations, sensibility-modifiers, with or without the drink. You’re not just consuming a film: you’re participating in an event, and this inevitably works both in the medium’s and the drink's favour. Back at home, however, it’s just you and the screen and the sitting-room you’ve sat in for the last twenty years, and there’s nothing to distract you from the awfulness of what’s on the screen or in the glass.

And it is awful, TV, apart from a handful of freakish singularities, to the extent that no wine can actually improve the experience – rather, it intensifies the despair and self-loathing you naturally experience in front of Question Time or Britain's Flashiest Families. So the question then becomes (given that you're not not going to drink TV wine) how to minimise the hurt?

My best guess, based on years of dead-eyed research, slumped and glazed in front of the box, is to find a cheap, industrial white, and make it your TV wine for all occasions. I'm thinking Turning Leaf, Blossom Hill, Tesco Pinot Grigio. The great thing is to avoid all reds, because red wine angries up the blood, which is the last thing you want when you're already simmering with contempt at what's unfolding in front of you. Worst mistake in the world is to mix, say, The Jeremy Kyle Show with a burly Australian Shiraz; you might as well call the police right now and get it over with. Any exceptions? Property and property makeover shows (Changing Rooms, A Place In The Sun, Grand Designs, Location, Location, Location, I could go on), where the will-they-won’t-they-screw-it-up dependability of the narrative is so soporific, such a bromide, it needs some red rage to make it watchable. Also, anything involving antiques; or a Journey Through Undiscovered Britain. Maybe a nice Saumur for these.

Any other alternatives to the zombie clutch of Blossom Hill? Yes: sparkling white. Not actual champagne, clearly, but anything which effervesces, suitable for The X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing or one of those charity tellythons or The Eurovision Song Contest, where your hysterical enjoyment of the programme is always threatening to turn (without warning) into a desire to run amok with a gun; or, conversely, Midsomer Murders or Death In Paradise, some braindead escapist procedural as meaningful as a prawn cracker, and in need of something both stimulating and narcotic (Lidl Cava, £3.50) to get through the alloted time. The only other alternative - not wine at all, in fact - is a good gin & tonic (of course!) or possibly whisky & soda, to be reserved for that handful of imported thrillers/policiers/out-there works of genius, by which I mean Breaking Bad or Spiral or Homeland, those rarities which are so satisfying and involving that they demand your absolute attention, something impossible to manage if you're full of wine, red, white, indifferent or high-end. Sad but true: but good TV belongs to the Spirit World.


Thursday 22 January 2015

Meal Deal or no deal? Tesco Finest Toro Vinas Del Rey

Mrs K rings. She is running late, and is picking up a Meal Deal from Tesco on her way home. Sorry, that’s a Tesco Finest  Meal Deal – not a Tesco Regular, Everyday, Normal or Just There On The Shelf Meal, oh no, but the Finest that Tesco can presumably offer.

For those who have not experienced a Meal Deal, it’s a sort of package offer of a complete ready meal for two for just £10. That’s a main course, an accompaniment and a dessert – plus a bottle of wine. Several supermarkets now offer these Deals. And what intrigues me is not the Meal (main, veg and dessert seems a reasonable basis for supper); nor, indeed, the Deal (the price is pretty good for a meal for two). No, the interesting thing is – why does a Meal Deal include a bottle of wine?

The first possibility is that wine is now seen as so everyday, so much a part of an evening meal at home, that it’s an essential element in anything purporting to be a complete meal for two. The supermarkets simply have to include it, or the offer would not be perceived to constitute a proper Meal, and angry customers might report their advertising to Ofpissed.

The second is that they want to introduce new customers to their range, by providing them with an enticing sample, as part of a bargain package. Thus tempted, they may return later to buy at full price, and drink Tesco wine happily into the future.

And the third is that this is an attempt to raise a ready meal to a higher status, to take it out of the lonely singles market and make it more akin to a romantic restaurant meal for two, and that’s  why a bottle of wine is included. The dishes themselves are relatively complex; once they’re out of their foil dishes and plastic containers, they could be quite sophisticated (pass the square plates and the tweezers, dear). We could be sitting in a restaurant, albeit one with no other customers or serving staff, and with a sommelier who seems to be a malcontent wearing his slippers.

So, the wine. Mrs K has grabbed this bottle from those included in the Tesco offer. It is red, and it is freezing cold; because to ensure customers only choose bottles included in the Deal, those particular wines are kept alongside the Meal – in the chill cabinet. Yes, even the red.

Mrs K says she thought she might have seen the word Toro on a wine that she has liked. Well, if you’re going to remember one single word from a wine label, this is marginally more useful than remembering ‘Chateau’.

Of course, that might have been Sangre de Toro. Or it might have been Concha y Toro. But it’s unlikely to have been a wine from  Toro, as this one is.

The 2012 version of this wine gets some rather nice mentions online – but unfortunately, this is the 2013. It has warmed up slightly in the house, but it is still less like a restaurant wine, more a crude and unheated garage, along with its accompanying oil, petrol fumes, antifreeze and battery acid. It puckers your cheeks and leaves a sour aftertaste. It’s terrible. It’s nasty

(According to their own website, Tesco appear unable to find any sellers of an Oxford dictionary ; bizarrely, those who viewed the page bought a set of fireside tools instead. Does this inability to source a dictionary explain such an egregious misuse of the adjective “Finest”?)

Now, given that the entire meal for two costs just £10, how much can this terrible wine possibly cost? Well, the till receipt details a price for the Meal Deal elements should you have paid for them individually. And theoretically the wine is the most expensive single element, at £7.19.

But in a discussion on the Tesco Wine Community website, the Tesco Wine Advisers explain that this wine “has been produced as an exclusive line to accompany the Tesco Finest Meal Deal which appears in-store. As it is exclusive to this offer it is unlikely it will appear amongst the range in the wine aisle and unfortunately, will not appear on WBTC [Wine By The Case].”

Which surely makes the £7.19 price tag purely nominal? Tesco can say it would  cost whatever they like – because it never will.

It also blows the bargain sample idea out of the water, because if you believed this was representative of a £7.19 wine, the Finest that Tesco have, you’d never buy another again.

Then I get it. It’s the restaurant thing, isn’t it. They’re so keen for their Meal Deal to resemble a proper restaurant meal, they’ve decided to mark up the wine in true restaurant wine list manner. Just like a restaurant, they have listed their wine at roughly twice what it's actually worth.

And yet. Mrs K and I may possibly repeat this adventure, despite the shockingly bad wine, priced at twice its value, and the curmudgeon of a wine waiter. As dining experiences go, the food is reasonable, the atmosphere convivial, and the dining room surprisingly uncrowded. Plus, we live here.


Thursday 15 January 2015

Gin - Alchemical Drink of 2015

So I'm taking part in this small, hand-crafted, guided tour of the Sipsmith's distillery in West London - Sipsmith being the award-winning London gin company which started only a few years ago, but which has already become one of the defining spirits manufacturers - and I have one of my hugely unreliable personal epiphanies, the gist of this one being, I am going to drink gin and nothing but, for the rest of my life.

Not hard to see why, of course. The tour is being adminstered by a bright young dude who works for Sipsmith's, and who breaks off every six minutes to say, 'Okay guys. Time for another tasting. Who'd like to try some of our fantastic damson vodka?'

I can barely get the word yes out fast enough. Each tasting snifter is sweeter than the last, even the room-temperature standard London Gin with nothing in it, a drink I would have thought undrinkable in the modern world. But no, Sipsmith's stuff is so finely-wrought that it fills me with warmth and well-being, like a TV Christmas Special. Not only that, but the distillery is really just a couple of large rooms in an anonymous shed, and one of these rooms is completely dominated by three large and intensely dramatic stills, all burnished copper and caressable steel, and they have names: Prudence, Patience and Constance. It is like a fairly-tale, or, even better, The Big Rock Candy Mountain. I am in a state of Prelapsarian happiness, and at times like these, decisions are made, life choices insist on articulating themselves and before you know it, I am about to turn my back on the World of Wine and devote myself entirely to the great-tasting World of Gin, where, as a happy by-product, I can support a local business and consume something which is authentically London, the greatest city in the world.

But it's not just the fabulous taste, nor the atmosphere of quietly tolerant hedonism in a patch of backstreet light-industrial which is so appealing. It's - I can't avoid the word - the alchemy of the gin process which really turns me on. After all, the stuff's made from a very basic grain alcohol, which comes in bulk through the front door, but which is then transmuted by the actions of the frankly filmic Constance or whoever, plus a magical admixture of botanicals and aromatics, into an elixir. Which then generously lends itself to further transformations - with basic mixers; in scores of cocktails; into playful infusions. There is a wall at Sipsmith covered in small carboys, each containing a trial concoction of gin + herbs, or flowers, or fruit, each silently glowing container a monument to the human imagination. The Sipsmith pranksters even used their old Christmas tree to distill a new flavour. You try that with a Chassagne Montrachet. It is all about possibilities, re-inventions, freedom. And the stuff doesn't even go off once you've opened it.

Won't I miss the profligate variety and dismal snobberies of the World of Wine? Not much. Over the course of my Sipsmith's evening, I had a world-class G & T made with lime and Fever-tree tonic; the neat gin; that damson vodka (one of their adorable sidelines); and, to round it off, a mesmerising Dry Martini, made by the bright young dude (who is, I should confess, a family friend, but, even allowing for that handicap, is still a bright young dude). This last drink generated such a sense of existential clarity that I can access it even now, some weeks later. There is a gin for every occasion, in other words; and I wasn't even hungover in the morning, certainly not with that listless cosmic dread which can follow an evening of wine. There's even a quiet internal narrative harmony: a few years ago, PK and I stumbled upon Sipsmith's gin at a wine fair, when it was still cheeky and relatively unknown. And we said, This is good, so good that PK actually gave me a bottle for Christmas. This latest encounter is therefore another moment in a long-term, deepening gin relationship, a juniper-scented love that will see me through into old age and the grave, where my fragrantly pickled corpse will resist the earthworms and centipedes for decades.

There remain only three small problems. First, Sipsmith gin is sublime, but it costs around £28.00 a bottle; Fevertree Tonic comes in at 75p per 200ml. Aldi, on the other hand, do a bottle of what claims to be London Dry Gin for just under a tenner, plus a litre of tonic for 37p. Clearly, corners will have to be cut, sooner rather than later.

Secondly, the question of drinking neat gin at room temperature: the last time I saw this done (apart from by a load of breathless enthusiasts in the Sipsmith distillery) was in the 1958 Anglo-American tweed'n'turnups classic Gideon of Scotland Yard, starring Jack Hawkins. Generations have gone by since gin was warm, and It will take time to properly re-integrate tepid London Dry into modern society. There is still something perverse about it, like wearing a jacket indoors.

And thirdly, there is the question of the entire case of crotch-grabbing Californian Shiraz so generously gifted to me at Christmas by my Father-in-law, plus five or six mixed reds and whites, all left over from the New Year. They will have to be dealt with in the appropriate manner, and dealt with severely. And then the gin awaits. Give me a couple of weeks; three, then. That's all I'm asking.


Thursday 8 January 2015

Question Time

Well, I seem to have been ignored by the New Years Honours list yet again. Despite what people say about cronyism, the fact that I have drunk wine with both the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to have carried no sway whatsoever. It’s about time people realised that I have things to say, on matters which are more significant than whether I have recently been in an accident, or ever possessed PPI.

Still, as the co-author of our modestly successful hardback book, I do now find myself in the position of answering questions about wine. I answer from experience, rather than qualification – but then, so does my greengrocer.

These are what I believe are described as my FAQs. Sediment have only infrequently answered questions in public, and a couple of them seem to be FAd by my wife, but that is neither here nor there.

Is this any good?
This is usually asked as a companion hoists a bottle from a shelf, or points to a bottle on a restaurant wine list. But I have also been asked this by a complete stranger in the aisle at Sainsbury’s. Have I finally developed the air of a connoisseur? Or, less appealingly perhaps, the look of a wino?

However, it’s reassuring that these people approach wine in Sediment’s own, direct manner. They do not ask me whether a wine exhibits floral notes, or minerality, or indeed, in a description CJ once memorably questioned, “thick-textured, late-Romantic, Rosenkavalier-like decadence”. They just want to know if it’s any good. So a connoisseur’s response about regions and vintages and pairing and Der Rosenkavalier would quite frankly be wasted. And actually in most cases, the honest answer is, “S’alright…”

How much did it cost?
This is a leading question, and it’s leading to trouble. Whatever the cost of a bottle of wine, there will be something else in the household budget demanding that sum. Yes, we could have had that stilton/rose bush/drive resurfaced instead. But they didn’t have 25% off six stiltons last week, did they…?

The advantage of maintaining a modest cellar is that you can go on about buying en primeur, many years ago, goodness I’d have to look it up etc etc. But an honest answer in my own case, which also conveniently leads the conversation in a different direction, is “About four Sunday newspapers”.

What do you think about wine as an investment?
The same as I think about oil as a drink.

(Incredibly, a member of our audience actually asked us this. We probably know less about investment than we do about wine, and that’s saying something. Do we even look  like shrewd investors? Never mind wine, only one of us has invested in a properly co-ordinated wardrobe.

Or perhaps we should start an investment blog, in which CJ seeks savings accounts which still take copper across the counter, while I judge banks on the quality of their stationery…)

What’s all this ‘midlife’ business? Are you really in your midlife?
Absolutely. As long as I live to 116.

Where do you buy your wine?
As anyone who reads Sediment regularly will know, our wine comes from supermarkets, corner shops, warehouses, mail order operations, snobby wine merchants and Azerbaijan. So now you know where to avoid.

What have you got against screwcaps?
When I open a bottle of wine, I like to feel I am participating in a centuries-old experience, not a functional modern alternative. Exchanging the traditional cork for a screwcap is like swapping shoelaces for Velcro.

Where, with a screwcap, is the solemn unwrapping, like carefully opening a gift? Where is the gentle pop, an audible stimulus to the tastebuds like the ringing of Pavlov’s bell? Where is the opportunity to demonstrate my finesse and flourish with the Waiter’s Friend?

As long as a bottle contains a cork, it lies somewhere on a spectrum topped by the finest wines in the world; whereas a screwcap indicates the depressing practicality of an electric car.

Should I be opening my 2009s?

Look. If you want the straightforward answer, there are plenty of charts with little leaning bottles and half-full glasses which will tell you what various critics and merchants think. But they have nothing to do with real-world agonising, which is bound up with whether an occasion is significant enough to crack open the case, and how many people are coming, and are they people who will appreciate them, and what if I die  before they’re ready? Eh?

Did you drink all of that this evening?
No of course not. This is the bottle I started last night. Honest.