Thursday 30 July 2015

One Damn Thing After Another: Pinot Noir

So No.1 Son and his girlfriend are coming round for supper, and I decide to get a bottle of something half-way respectable in an effort to impress them. Standing like an imbecile in Waitrose, I fall into the clutches of a bottle of Louis Latour Pinor Noir, copperplate writing on the front + cork, at 25% off what is presumably an initial price overinflated by 33%.

'That'll do the trick,' I say, allowing myself a 45% probability that actually, it won't.

And do you know what? I'm right. It is crummy: just a vapid red drink with a bit of lacquer on its breath. Startled and slightly ashamed, I drag out a screwtop Fitou to try and make amends to the young people whom I have let down.

'At least this tastes of something,' I announce sportively. Indeed: ink, a hint of liftshafts, blackberries, an extinguished barbeque, all the things you'd look for in a no-quality Fitou. Nobody much cares, though, by this stage. The empty Latour bottle sits there, fat, vain and friendless and I loathe it. Then I have another idea. A pal, recently travelling in Latvia, has brought back a very small bottle of something he can't account for, and kindly given it to us.

'It might be a liqueur,' he said at the time. 'Or cough mixture. They seem to like it in Riga.'

The Riga bottle, Riga Black Balsam it says in silver on a black label, itself stuck on a bottle made of black glass, is about the size of a single round of ammo. I forget to make a joke about the word noir. We all look at it seriously for a while, then each take a sip. And yes, it could be cough mixture, or a drink, if, like the late Malcolm Lowry, you're the kind of person who drains a whole bottle of olive oil under the mistaken impression that it's hair tonic and might contain alcohol. It's 30% by volume, it says so. Liquorice is in there somewhere. We experience it with a sense of sadness and some loss.

A day after that, no.2 Son comes round and makes off with the only dependable Waiter's Friend in the building. We now have no reliable means of getting a cork out of a bottle.

A couple of days after that, I try and drag myself out of the slough that seems to be deepening around me by acquiring a special-offer (screwtop) Hardy's Shiraz Rosé. Having already mentioned this fine winemaker in the last two weeks, I feel I'm on safe ground, in much the way I felt on safe ground with the imposing-looking Louis Latour.

'It'll cheer me up,' is what I think. But it too, turns out to be a failure - more than a failure, an eye-watering bubblegum and hairspray catastrophe. How can this be? Does the term safe ground mean nothing? I react to it so wildly even my wife notices.

'Not good?' she says without a trace of pity.

Salvation only arrives a few days after that, when some pals turn up, and what do they bring with them, but a bottle of the dreaded Pinot Noir - providentially with a screw top - only this time there is no Louis Latour tinsel about it. This one resides in a positively self-deprecating light green bottle from Wairau Cove, New Zealand, with an equally quiet label and the instruction that it goes well with pan-fried duck. Turns out that this is the stuff I should have been buying a week earlier: supple, structured, actually tastes of something. Probably cost the same as the Louis Latour, too, although I am so busy with furtive admiration it doesn't occur to me to ask.

New Zealand, eh? A country so far off my conceptual radar I usually forget it's there. And I'm never going to visit it, unless someone's prepared to fly me Club Class all the way because I mean, I just don't fit airline seats. It will have to remain an enigma, like Finnegans Wake or the enduring appeal of the Republican Party. My loss, I suppose.


Thursday 23 July 2015

Drinking wine in the House of Commons, Westminster

Another episode in a wine-fuelled passage which is putting the Stannah stairlift into social climbing. Having drunk wine at 10 Downing Street, and with the Archbishop of Canterbury,
it was my enormous privilege to be invited for a drink at the House of Commons. And not in some reception or drinks party, oh no; but for a glass of wine with a Member of Parliament in the famous Strangers’ Bar.

Westminster is the kind of place where history breathes, and where traditions survive, along with some equally elderly attitudes. When I tell a policeman at the entrance that I am expected by a Member of Parliament, he asks “Where will you be meeting him?”

To which I reply, “Her.”

Of course there is serious security, at an x-ray, metal detecting, belt-removing level, before you get to the departure lounge. Sorry, Westminster Hall.

And there you encounter… the gift shop. Here, visitors can buy house wines which are, for once literally, House wines. A House of Commons red, boldly emblazoned “Claret”, and a rather more interesting white, a Madeleine Angevine, grown in Hampshire. Both are labelled with the House of Commons portcullis, and sold in the extensive shop along with various branded trinkets, knick-knacks and gew-gaws. Oh, and Speaker Bercow’s single malt Scotch. Known no doubt for its emollience.

From there it’s a stroll with my host to the Central Lobby (Peers one way, politicians t’other) and on, through panelled corridors, to the closed oak door of the legendary MPs’ drinking den, the Strangers’ Bar.

Despite its fame, The Strangers’ Bar is tiny; a close, wood-panelled room, with a “hole in the wall” bar at one end. Along one side wall are wooden ledges, upon which standees can rest a drink; along the other, high round tables each surrounded with padded bar stools.

The public are not admitted except as guests, as the sign makes clear, and only Members themselves can actually buy drinks. Despite this, the crowd at the bar was three deep.

There is a comfortable attitude towards drinking in the Palace of Westminster. MPs cannot formally accuse each other of being drunk in the House of Commons, although Clare Short did once famously declare that Alan Clark was "incapable”. (He later admitted in his Diaries to having been “muzzy”.)

But another MP, Mark Reckless, had to apologise in 2010 for failing to vote because he had drunk too much. "I remember someone asking me to vote,” he said afterwards, “and not thinking it was appropriate, given how I was at the time.”

Well, prices in the Strangers’ Bar are encouragingly low – but they are not subidised; it’s simply that the Bar doesn’t have to be run like a High Street pub. So wines are from £15 a bottle, and from less than £3 a glass.

And there are more than the House souvenir bottles on offer. Half a dozen varieties each of reds and whites; on the white side, for a warm evening, a couple of chardonnays, a brace of sauvignon blancs, a pinot grigio and… a Picpoul de Pinet. Finding a Picpoul de Pinet in a pub would be unusual. Finding one in a members’ bar at less than £4 a glass was impressive. But then, so will be the palates of some of the MPs.

We took our wines outside, on the Terrace. This is a real treat, a view of the Thames which you cannot get from any other vantage point. The wine was cool, crisp and bright, a really excellent example. And there’s a friendly, relaxed and gossipy atmosphere; no obvious cabals in the corners, and absolutely no sign of the Terrace, as former MP Hazel Blears once observed, “Getting a bit lively”.

If some of the attitudes at Westminster might be outdated, it’s refreshing to see it retain a relaxed attitude towards the conviviality of drink. My host remembers once leaving the Bar with an unfinished bottle of beer, taking it to finish at a dinner elsewhere in the Palace. She was stopped at the door of the dining room; not with a warning about taking alcohol through the corridors, but with the words, “Have you brought a bottle for everyone, madam?”

As Big Ben struck 7 – rather sonorously, when you’re sitting nearby – half of the Terrace got up and left.
It was a division (or, for our foreign readers, vote). Guests are allowed to remain unaccompanied for 15 minutes, time enough for my host to pass through the lobby (or, for our foreign readers, vote). And I saw no-one incapable of doing so.

With a combination of excellent wine, good company and fabulous location, I have never drunk in a better members’ bar, let alone Members’ bar. And having resisted the temptation to become even “muzzy”, perhaps I might be invited back. Whereas, following his own unfortunate episode, Mark Reckless said that “given this very embarrassing experience I don't intend to drink at Westminster again." As he lost his seat in the General Election, this may not be an issue.

PK">Sediment: Two Gentlemen And Their Mid-Life Terroirs

Thursday 16 July 2015

New Week, New Wines!

So, refreshed and yet somehow exhausted by our sailing trip, I come back to the Wonderful World of Wine, determined to start off on a new footing, and build a better, brighter relationship with that drink, insisting on the up rather than the down. I'm bursting with positivity, and this is the result, and honestly I don't care if you like it or not:

What's been happening this week? Well, I was put in mind of a trip I recently made to Australia* (visiting family and friends and taking in a few wine tastings(!)) where I came across a (to me) brilliant new winemaker, Hardys, of McClaren Vale, near fabulous Adelaide. Here, surrounded by cockatoos, Sturt Desert Peas, numbats, quolls, eucalyptus trees and currawongs, the man at the barrier explained to us that Hardys have been going for well over a hundred years, making superb reds and whites, sparklings and rosés, and that their aim is to sell 'As much of the stuff as we can, all over the world'. Unfortunately we couldn't visit the winery itself as they'd just closed to visitors for the afternoon, but the terroir looked fabulous - a rich, undulating landscape, filled with vines, rich red earth, trees and some buildings. The Onkaparinga River National Park rose fabulously in the background. Truly, an unforgettable sight.

And the standout wine? A Hardys Stamp Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon, created by the brilliant winemaker Viki Wade: a meeting of two grapes, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon (who'd have thought?), rich in plum, redcurrant and dark cherry flavours, with soft tannins and a smooth finish. I was lucky enough to taste this a couple of hours after leaving McClaren Vale itself, after which I raved about it to anyone who would listen. And what do you know? As I found out only yesterday, the 2014 version of this superb wine is now available in the UK, from Tesco, of all people :-). They're currently offering it at £5.00 a bottle, which may sound a little steep, but is well worth the outlay. Perfect with grilled meats and poultry, cheeses, charcuterie, egg dishes, roasts, pasta, game, cottage pie and hearty stews. A superb wine, from a brilliant winemaker.

Cooling it down: it's still summer (!), so what better way to spend those long, lazy, summer evenings than with family and friends, round the barbeque? Now, not everyone likes burgers, chops, chicken pieces, steaks or sausages (although, between you and me, I love all of them =)), so why not grill a piece of fish, or even some marinaded king prawns? When it's done, wrap everything in a sesame bun with some lightly-dressed salad (extra virgin olive oil, a screw of sea salt and a spritz of organic lemon does it perfectly) and ecco! a superb way to watch the sun go down. And to pair with it? I'm going for another New World treat - a 2014 Chilean Cabernet Rosé from Sainsbury's brilliant Winemakers' Selection. Chile is one of the new, up-and-coming wine countries, and this rosé helps explain why. Brimming with ripe red fruit notes combined with a touch of rose and violet, this is the perfect summer treat, served chilled just so. At £6.00 a bottle, it's an investment, but one definitely worth pushing the boat out for.

Warming it up: it's still summer (!!), and we know how that summer heat can turn in five minutes to summer coolth - which is why I've also got a warm, spicy red on hand. It's another winner from Sainsbury's, something I came across only a week or so ago - a superb 2013 Montpierre Reserve Fitou, from the fabulous Languedoc. As anyone who's been down there (I know I have!) will know**, conditions are perfect for making this sort of wine, and this is no exception. It's a full-bodied and spicy red, packed with blackberry and cherry fruit flavours, with a hint of spice. It's a perfect match for grilled meats, tomato-based pasta dishes and hard cheeses, and who doesn't love hard cheeses? At £6.50 a bottle, it's not for everyday drinking, but don't be deterred. Hang on to it for a while (or until the next cloudy day!) and you'll be fabulously surprised by this full-bodied, spicy red and its blackberry and cherry fruit flavours. And spice. A brilliant wine, bottled by Les Jardins du Languedoc with all the style and finesse you'd expect.

*I'll be honest, I invented the trip to Australia, a country I have never actually been to in my life. But you get such a sense of it when you open a bottle of Hardys Stamp Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon, you feel as if you've been there ;-)

** No, this I really have been to :-D

Didn't think I could do it, did you? Well, ha!


Thursday 9 July 2015

A word in your ear: Chinon, Domaine du Colombier

Psst! Dancer’s Delight, at Kempton, 3.30. Oh, and Chinon, Domaine du Colombier, at Sainsbury’s, 7.00.

That’s how I sometimes feel about wine recommendations. It’s like being offered a racing tip. Or an insider steer on the stock market. “Blue Horseshoe loves Annacot Steel”. It’s still a gamble, but at least if it doesn’t turn out well there’s someone else to blame.

CJ lost faith in recommendations a long time ago. During a vain attempt to buy some highly-publicised orange wine he finally acknowledged “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.”

Because of course, wine’s a limited commodity. You can’t simply produce more, like a well-reviewed book. So if everyone rushes to buy it, it can leave the shelves as bare as an Iron Curtain grocer’s. Although despite the increasing popularity of wine, I think we’re unlikely to see recommendations inducing a Black Friday brawl over the Pinot Grigio. 

And often, the columnists find and recommend wines which are off the beaten track – or, as we prefer to say, aisle. Or they recommend something which, even if affordable by the bottle, has to be ordered from somewhere remote, or is only sold by the case. So a £10 bottle which you might have tried becomes a rather more daunting £120 punt.

Sometimes, though, it all comes together. A credible critic, a wine available by the bottle, a reasonable price, and a retailer I can get to. As in the Observer, where David Williams recommended this bottle of £7 Chinon from Sainsbury’s.

Like any inside tip, I kept this information to myself, plus a few hundred thousand Observer readers. I sidled nonchalantly into my Sainsbury’s wine aisle, to avoid alerting the other shoppers and inducing the shopping frenzy of an IKEA opening. Easy, easy, nothing to see here…only to find that the supermarket itself had stuck the recommendation on to the shelf.

I presume this is because you’re being tempted to try something which costs £7, a relatively expensive purchase by Sainsbury standards, let alone CJ’s. There’s little point them putting up reviews of, say, hummus, because you’d only be spending 90p. And if you consumed seven quid’s worth in one go, you’d probably end up the colour of a sandy beach.

Or is it because critic, supermarket and winemaker all recommend this as a red to be drunk chilled – and if only one of them said it, your average Sainsbury customer would refuse to believe them? “Great for chilling down”, it declares, although there are those who might be confused as to whether that refers to the wine, or the mindset.

(“If there’s one thing I know, Doris, it’s that you don’t drink red wine cold.” So no, chum, there isn’t even one thing you know. Let me get to the checkout first, before you try and pay with a ten shilling note.)

Incredibly, despite the review, the price, the persuasively authentic-looking label, and presenting on the eve of a heatwave the advice about drinking it chilled, there was some Chinon left. People, as Jim Morrison said, are strange.

My bottle spent one of the hottest days of the year chilling in the fridge. And it was a perfect summer evening drink; bright in colour, a slight aroma of the ferme, and a peppery, cherryish flavour. Chilled down like that it was light, refreshing, and it tasted authentically French, in that way that New World wines do not. For £7 it transported me to a French table far more cheaply than the Eurotunnel. And the queues were shorter.

But of course, it’ll all be gone by now.


Thursday 2 July 2015

Dry Land. Some Californian Red

So the wife and I are just back from our sailing trip, filthy, bruised, exhausted, scorched by the wind and sun to the point where we both now resemble Julio Iglesias, and quite literally the first thing I do is sit down and ponder Sediment.

Only problem is that for the last three and a bit weeks, wine has been so far down my list of priorities as to be virtually invisible. All that matters in a cruise to the West Country is making it to the end of the day without falling overboard or freezing to death. What you put in your mouth after that - and I can now tell you that a baked ham will not last three weeks in an ageing boat fridge without developing at least some mould - is starch, fat, and narcotics with a light top dressing of prayer.

You might ask why I put myself through this experience. Truth is, the wife really likes sailing, and I was doing it to keep her happy, an occasional weekend potter around the Solent not being enough as far as she's concerned. Also, the West Country in June can be - indeed, was - quite lovely, the little harbours at which we turned up all glazed with solstice light and beauty. So it is not without reward. Equally, it is not an existence that PK would understand. It is not about dinner parties and tablecloths and decanters and social gênes and all that crap. It isn't in the least winecentric.

In fact, the only time wine made it onto my front page was with a Calfornian red which I am convinced in retrospect was an own brand which we bought at the Co-Op in pretty St Mawes, Cornwall. It had a gee-whizz label, that's for sure, broadly hinting at Rodeo Drive and botched facelifts, and was made from, I think, Malbec and Petite Sirah.

Drinking-wise, on the other hand, it was so ape-like that I actually recoiled from the glass after the first swig, and stared at it as if it was throwing out cinders. Spangles and Drano came to mind, followed by a kind of dust-devil in the back of the throat, ending with a sensation of deep personal loss. And this after a day spent getting stuck in a ghastly fog bank at the entrance to Dartmouth: a long moment of terror topped off with a glassful of garbage.

The good news, though, was that this horrible drink eventually turned out to be sound enough, at least within the ethos of boat wine - two days of spiteful neglect, including some heavy-handed churning at sea, doing wonders for its approachability, taming the stuff to the point where I could drink it without crying. I even got quite fond of it. It was, it turned out, a rebel child, one whom no laws could control, but also a rebel who understood that sometimes we were all in this damn thing together, and that there were times when a chronic inability to play nice could transform itself into a steeliness, an inner resolve which compensated for any rough edges, any spontaneous belligerence, a wine with more heart than at first appeared, Godammit, it was a man's wine, that's what I'm trying to say.

The rest of the time? Gin and whisky, as much of them as I could lay my hands on. Not Lieutenant-Commander Tommy Woodrooffe level, but near enough. Right at the end we even acquired a sack of ice cubes. And some limes. If I'd been able to get some rum, Royal Navy style, I'd have had that, too. I mean, who ever drank a glass of wine as a sundowner? Just look at the picture, if you're not persuaded.