Thursday 26 March 2015

On The Cheap: Rawson's Retreat

So the Brother-in-Law has gone to France for a day and come back with a whole year's worth (he says) of wine. Since I can't even imagine what a year's worth of wine would look like, let alone buy that amount and bring it home in a VW Golf and save hundreds of pounds into the bargain - yes, allowing for travel expenses - all I can do is whistle reverently while swivelling my eyeballs up and down while he tells me what he's achieved.

More than that, though: I have to thank him for rising to the challenge ofbuying me something sight unseen and hoping that I'll like what he's chosen. The result being six bottles of Rawson's Retreat 2013 Shiraz Cabernet - a New World crowd-pleaser, not my usual tipple, but let's spurn convention for once, and indulge in, yes, a firm and fruity, supple yet structured, big Australian red. And just a whisker under £5 a bottle! Life is good, as if it's unexpectedly passed its MOT.

Next thing, of course, is to look this apparent gift horse in the mouth. A fiver a bottle from the Calais Wine Superstore is only good if it's so markedly less than the price of the same wine in the UK that even the most wretched UK-based tightwad will find something to cheer. Blanched with apprehension, I check out the offers. Thank God, it's on sale for anything between £6.48 and £7.99 a bottle. This chimes in fairly nicely with an Argentinian Malbec the Bro-in-Law produced (with a flourish) at supper, noting that Tesco were asking a tenner a bottle for it; whereas he got it on a superspecial deal at £3.

Is it reasonable to infer, then, that the price the Calais Wine Superstore charges for a wine is closer to its real value (whatever that is)? That Calais prices reflect some kind of Platonic ideal, denied us in the UK? Duty on a bottle of still wine in the UK is seriously over £2; in France, it's a few pence. At the bargain-to-mid-range-industrial end, this is all the justification you need to gas up the car and go south. But what if we strip out the difference in duty - which is, after all, not Tesco's or Asda's or Waitrose's to determine - and see how the supermarkets rate? Can we use Calais as a baseline from which to determine UK value or lack of it?

Well, a Chilean Casillero Del Diablo Chardonnay currently goes for £4.49 in Calais; £7.99 at Tesco. Take away the £2+ duty, and you still find a price difference of over a quid. A Wolf Blass Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon is £9.99 at Tesco; £5.99 in Calais. Discrepancy: £2. A Prestige de Calvet Merlot blend, on the other hand, is currently £5.99 in Tesco, down from £8.99; and £3.99 in Calais. At this point, the price discrepancy disappears - but only for as long as Tesco favours the wine with a special offer. Once the £5.99 Tesco deal ends, the adjusted price gap zooms up to £3.

Tesco, of course, aren't the only ones. The Wolf Blass, for instance, is going for £10 a bottle at Sainsbury's - effectively the same price as Tesco. Morrisons want £7.99 - same as Tesco - for the Casillero Del Diablo Chardonnay. Ocado are asking a whopping £8.99 for the Prestige de Calvet - although now I look at it, the Calais version appears to be a 2009, while Ocado's is a 2011. Is the 2011 seriously that much better than the 2009? That aside, how do we account for these two and three pound per bottle price differences that keep cropping up? Additional UK distribution costs? Warehousing? Point of sale materials? Swankier online presence?

You can go on in this vein for as long as your sanity holds out, sizing up the domestic pricings against the Calais Wine Superstore's notionally ideal price points. A Beaujolais-Villages in Calais goes for £6.99; Waitrose, £10.99 (both on offer). A Heidsieck Champagne in Calais? £11.99. Asda? £18. And so on. If a theme emerges, it is either that the Calais Wine Superstore has the shrewdest and most tenacious buyers in the whole of the Pas de Calais, possibly in the whole of Northern Europe; or that British wine buyers are routinely being stiffed by those very supermarket chains who promise us the lowest of low prices.

Or have I missed something in my initial assumptions? Is my arithmetic basically, crap (always a possibility)? Or does it just re-emphasise (and indeed, re-re-emphasise) the maxim that the only time to buy wine from a supermarket is when it's being touted as a special deal? Only then - allowing for the duty gap - do you start to achieve parity. Straight off the internet: a Spanish Merlot is going for £6 at Sainsbury's; same thing in Calais, at £3.99. A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, £7.99 at Morrisons (down from £10.99); Calais? £5.99. So it can be done. I mean, by to-morrow, all these deals will have vanished, to be replaced by other deals buried somewhere else in a succession of indistinguishable websites, requiring only patience, supreme cunning, and a remorseless fixity of purpose on the part of the buyer, in order to secure a drink at a fair price. But the rule still holds, for those with the time and energy to put it into practice.

The alternative, evidently, is to be like my Brother-in-Law, work out your annual drink requirements, and get on a ferry. But no, I have no plans to head across the Channel and sort it out properly for myself. Why not? Well, it's not so much that I can't do it; I'm just too damn lazy, if you must know.


Thursday 19 March 2015

Wipe away those cares and woes...

There’s always another worry for me in this wine-drinking malarkey. “Anxiety irradiating every word” was how CJ described one of my recent offerings. And now I’ve got something else to be anxious about. Have I got “a filthy wine stain”? On my teeth?

Worse; perhaps I have not been looking closely enough at my guests’  teeth after dinner. Has my wine given them  filthy stains? Along with the mints and coffee, should one be politely offering a convenient Wine Wipe?

As soon as I saw these in New York, I began to wonder how London society could possibly have drunk red wine for a couple of centuries without them. Wine Wipes are “The agreeable concoction to remove that filthy red wine stain on your teeth without interfering with taste.”

Now, the only time I have observed a significant purpling of teeth is at wine tastings; but then, the participants have been virtually rinsing their mouth with wines for hours. And doing so in the exuberant manner of a dental mouthwash, which even common etiquette would proclaim inappropriate at a dinner table – let alone finally spitting the mouthful out. For wine tasters, staining is surely a professional hazard; wine teeth are like tennis elbow, housemaid’s knee or that pain you get in your wrist.

So perhaps purple teeth are actually a mark of pride, a display of indulgence, the sign of a serious wine drinker? It wouldn’t be the first physical side-effect to gain a social status. I’m old enough to remember when nicotine stains on the fingers were a teenage badge of honour, to show you were a serious smoker, and not just some namby-pamby behind-the-CCF-hut puffer. A stout belly was once an indication of wealth and status. And I’m always a little suspicious myself of people limping around the City on crutches in Autumn and Spring, with a somewhat wry expression that says to everyone “Yeah, ski-ing…”

But then there are those who indulge in absurd teeth-whitening processes, resulting in a mouth like a tiled shower. Perhaps they are paranoid afterwards about the staining effects of functions their mouth was actually designed to pursue, viz  eating and drinking, as opposed to grinning at cameras?

A brief online search found one website which warns that “there can be some long-term dulling effects from a chronic diet of dark, acidic wines.” I assume this refers to teeth, and not brain.

“I have a patient who loves red wine and actually drinks it with a straw to avoid tooth contact,” writes A Dentist. Clearly, they must love their teeth more than their wine.

(One useful tip I did pick up was to brush teeth before  drinking, which removes the plaque that stains more easily than teeth themselves.)

Anyway, I need not worry, because I now have my Wine Wipes. They resemble small make-up removal pads or, in that slightly disturbing contemporary description, a moist towelette. Indeed, in the fingers they feel exactly like a baby wipe, which has immediate negative flashbacks for those of us who have actually used one to wipe a baby.

On the label they are described as 'Orange Blossom Flavored', in itself bizarre as while many of us eat oranges, few of us I suspect eat their blossom. But the wipes smell distinctly medicinal, and of course they carry the usual warnings; do not swallow etc. Oh, and keep out of the reach of children. Whose teeth should be left wine-stained, for the authorities to see.

Anyway, after a large glassful of cabernet sauvignon, including even a couple of good dental swillings (while Mrs K was out of the room, of course) I repaired to the hall mirror to assess the damage. No “filthy stain” to speak of, but there was a certain minor purpling of the gums and teeth, for which I think I can blame the wine and not some appalling carious disease.

The box, in cheerful manner, says they can “wipe that wine off your smile” – or, presumably, off my awkward gurning into the mirror. I smeared, swiped and eventually scrubbed at my teeth with a Wine Wipe. It tasted of…nothing, actually. And I can honestly say that I saw no difference whatsoever. Although the wipe gained a slight pinkish hue, indicating the absorption of something I can only hope was wine.

“Remove that filthy red wine stain on your teeth without interfering with taste.” The ambiguous grammar employed surely highlights another issue; is it in good taste to wipe your teeth? It’s obviously okay to wipe your mouth with a napkin, but many people baulk at using a toothpick in company. Is this Wiping something you should do in the privacy of a bathroom? Where, of course, there might be other means of cleaning your teeth?

And my final worry; what happens when you have to return to your host, and explain why you have wiped away all vestiges of the lovely wine they have served?

Ah, this age of anxiety…


Thursday 12 March 2015


So another week goes by, and what have I drunk? A bottle of Waitrose's bargain own-brand gutbucket rosé, which looked the part and was great for about five seconds; and after that was like windscreen washer additive, and yes, I have drunk windscreen washer additive, lots of it. Then, a bottle of low-end CDR, in an attempt to put the horrorshow of a couple of years ago truly behind me. This was so-so, therefore an improvement on the rosé, but still tasted of sucked pennies and coal gas. Finally a Riesling which crept in from somewhere, again okay, but not really what I wanted, unless what I wanted was flat Appletiser from a bottle the shape of a hoover attachment.

I look yearningly at my bottle of Sipsmith and contempate a zesty G & T, but the great gin project has stalled, on account of the fact that the Sipsmith is so expensive and precious, I can't bring myself to drink any. It just sits there in its bottle, like ambergris. And the whisky we nowadays acquire in catering-sized carboys leaves me a bit cold, so nothing doing there.

Then, a chance of redemption. What do I see written up in one of the freesheets which litters the morning train? Orange wine. Orange wine, as in leaving the white grape skins to macerate with the juice, creating a salmon blush, rather than wine made from oranges; which I could go for, too. Apparently, 'This trend has translated into the mainstream', causing 'mass-market retailers' to stock 'more than one variety of the amber nectar'. Well, if there's one thing I love, it's a trend which translates into the mainstream. These translating-into-the-mainstream orange wines are 'grippy', 'soft', 'approachable', 'earthy', 'honeyed' and 'completely different'. They look fantastic in the pictures, tainted and unnatural and oddly Victorian. They come from Georgia. Or Croatia. Almost the first thing I do, several days later, is try and buy some.

I check out a nearby M&S - the retailer mentioned in the newspaper piece as stocking this stupendous drink - and they have scores of presentable-looking wines, but nothing orange, and, now I think about it, why would they? I look around helplessly, as if I've lost something that matters to me. I may even be talking aloud. Who, actually, wants orange wine? Only someone utterly craven with boredom would give it more than ten seconds' thought. But I have not only given it valuable headroom, I have failed to observe one of the most basic rules of wine-buying: that anything publicised in a newspaper will be unobtainable the moment you take an interest in it. I know that. If I could kick myself without flattening a nearby stack of modularised M&S crostini I would.

How many times, I say to myself, aloud or under my breath, do I need to be reminded that wine writing inhabits a parallel universe: one in which cars are road-tested by magazines, but can never be ordered from the manufacturers; non-existent programmes are earmarked as essential by the TV guides; completely inaccessible holiday destinations are routinely endorsed; must-have smartphone apps can only be downloaded from the planet Neptune. It all comes back to that pitiful convention, almost universally observed, which asserts that much of the appeal of wine lies in its otherness, its refusal to be bound by the normal laws of supply and demand - part foodstuff, part artwork, part myth, wholly conoisseurial, real and abstract at the same time. Obviously, if I thought anyone was reading Sediment, I would try and do the same, and give them some preposterous fictitious hot tips just for the sheer heartless irony of it, but that's not going to happen any time soon. So I am the mug punter, and I remain the mug punter.

Only good thing: when I get home from the orange futility, I find that my Bro-in-Law is set to do another of his booze runs. Yes, it's horrorshow time again, only this time I am going to get him to pick the booze, because he is level-headed guy who knows his way round a discount wine mart, and this time we are going to get through it unscathed. Orange wine! I can laugh at the idea now!


Next week - Cane toad wines: get ready for the great taste of summer

Thursday 5 March 2015

Buying wine, buying meat – why it's all the same…

Bear with me. You may not imagine they exist, but I am about to explore the extraordinary parallels between buying wine – and buying meat.

Just a fortnight ago, I wondered about the kind of person who would simply order “A glass of wine, please”, without any kind of detail. Don’t they care what they get? Who would ever order “Oh, just any piece of meat, thanks.”?

And the more I thought about this, the more that purchasing these two consumables seemed to become indistinguishable adventures in ignorance and embarrassment.

If someone did walk into a butcher’s and ask for “A piece of meat, please”, then like our capricious orderer of a random glass of wine, the first question they might be asked is surely the same: “Red or white?”

Not so tricky, that first hurdle. But like the opening question on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, it’s a sort of entertaining warm-up. Just to put you at your ease with something you can probably answer, before the difficult questions to come.

Because as soon as you get past that initial question, you’re then expected to have some kind of knowledge of the potential varieties. You think you know enough basics; the beef, lamb, pork and chicken; the Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chianti and Rioja. And you know how to pronounce them. That’s Ri-oh-ka. Soss-idge.

But then the chap behind the counter starts suggesting things you’ve never heard of. “This isn’t just a pork chop, it’s a Gloucester Old Spot.” “Ah, now this is what we call a Super Tuscan.”

You start getting drawn into issues of provenance. Chardonnay – Californian, or New Zealand? Bacon – Danish, or Wiltshire? How “natural” or “organic” do you want your product? How contented a life has your grape – sorry, chicken – led?

You get offered alternatives. If they don’t have pheasant, should you take partridge? Or guinea fowl? If the Burgundy’s too expensive, will that Otago Pinot Noir suffice? And you find yourself struggling to maintain your end of the discussion by showing some kind of basic knowledge. “Shiraz…that’s Syrah, right?” “Mallard…that is duck, isn’t it?”

We’re terrified in both establishments that we’ll be asked a whole load of questions which feel as if they’re simply there to demonstrate our salesman’s superiority, and serve only to highlight our ignorance to other, tutting customers. “Blade or skirt?” “Pouilly-Fuissé or Pouilly-Fumé?” “Do you want that Frenched?”

(By the way, if a chap does inquire whether you want that Frenched, or simply asks “Spatchcocked, sir?”, make sure you’re in the butcher’s.)

There’s a bewildering range of options. Do you want that bacon dry cured, sweet cured, smoked or unsmoked, streaky or back? Will your Bordeaux be Left Bank or Right Bank, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, Premier, Grand or Superieur?

And is the particular variety of meat or wine you’re interested in better aged, or young?

In the end, you just have to decide whether to trust the chap behind the counter, when he tells you that this will taste terrific, and it’s really worth spending the extra on this particular cut or bottle. Because no, you can’t “try before you buy”. It’s raw and/or unopened – so the only way to find out which you prefer is to buy them, take them home, prepare them appropriately and taste them for yourself. You have little to go on, beyond the remarkably comparable advice of Olly Smith telling you it’s “quaffable”, and Homer Simpson going “Mmmmm, bacon…”

(Come to think of it, isn’t most shoddy wine writing basically “Mmmmmm, wine…”?)

Of course there are differences. As I have observed before, you don’t buy a selection box of twelve mixed meats, most of which you have never heard of, then eat your way through deciding which you prefer. But perhaps you shouldn’t buy mixed cases of wine, either?

Many of us avoid these issues by going to the supermarket. There, we can pick our products from the shelf, and read the packaging in quiet bafflement. What is the difference between stewing steak, braising steak and chuck steak? Or between Rioja, Rioja crianza and Rioja Reserva? There’s no-one to tell us – but at least there is also no-one there to tut impatiently or sneer at our ignorance. We can simply stare at the labels, in the hope that enlightenment will descend upon us like the annunciation.

But the next time someone feels daunted about shopping in a wine merchant’s, perhaps they’ll be reassured to realise that it’s just the same as being baffled in the butcher’s.

However, do remember which is which. Only one of the salesmen should be wielding a knife. 

Or a bottle.