Thursday 25 February 2016

Home Alone – Good wine, or cheap wine?

An evening alone. So, do I open a good wine, or a cheap one? There’s an angel on one shoulder, a devil on the other. Trouble is, I can’t tell which one’s which…

Open a good one. What’s that people are always saying? Life’s too short to drink bad wine.

No, no, no. Life’s too long to drink the good stuff now. Save it. There’ll always be some special event when you want a good wine to celebrate. If you’ve drunk the good stuff just because it was a lonely night…

Pah. Open a good one. Let’s face it, you’re the one who most appreciates it. You’re the one who’s gone to all the trouble of sourcing it. You get the most pleasure out of drinking it. Tonight, you can really treat yourself, and take all the time you like in choosing and savouring a wine, with no-one to see and comment on your special tasting glass and your 'funny' tasting face.

What about one of those bottles which are so good, you could only afford one? It’s rare you can ever share a single bottle with just one guest. Why did you buy those really nice single bottles if not for an occasion like this? And you can drink as much of it yourself as you like.

Although ironically, if you do have a good one, you’ll drink less. You’ll savour it, and sip slowly, and you’ll be satisfied with far less than if you drink a cheap one. You might even have enough left for tomorrow night’s supper as well…

Hang on there. Good wine is for sharing. The whole thing about a really nice bottle of wine, like a play or a football match, is enjoying it with someone else. Swapping thoughts about the experience, getting a different perspective, and deciding whether the second half was better than the first.

And good wine is expensive. Can you justify selfishly spending that much on yourself? What’s that L’Oreal catchphrase? “Because you’re worth it”? Well, you’re not.

Ah, that awkward tipping point, when your wine costs more than your meal. Remember that ad showing a woman with half a dozen guests in the background,  hauling half a cow out of her oven, with a slogan something along the lines of “When your meal costs more than your cooker, your cooker had better be AEG”? Well tonight, it’s only you and your terrible cooking, so don’t pick an expensive wine, because your meal doesn’t even cost more than your kettle.

No, this is definitely the time for a cheap one, because no-one else will know. You can get the same relaxing sensation, for a fraction of the price. You can quietly dispose of one of those embarrassing supermarket purchases which confirm, unfortunately, that you can Taste the Difference. You won’t run the risk of having a visitor look scathingly at the label; or have Mrs K ask if she might like it, only to be told that depends on whether she would ‘like’ something which tastes of turpentine and mud.

Or perhaps one of the gifts, then? One of those stray bottles, brought by a guest, and stashed in the rack. You don’t have to worry what they cost, because you didn’t pay for them. And you might not know whether they’re any good or not.

(The trouble is that you do. And, on the whole, they’re not. In fact the ones which sit in the rack you know to be so duff, that you wouldn’t take them to anybody else’s in case they thought you had bought them yourself. So you are no more likely to choose to spend an evening with that £3.99 Merlot than you are to waterboard yourself.)

Think again. If the cooking is basic, then a good wine will lift the meal above the mundane. In fact, if the wine’s good enough, you won’t even care what you’re eating! You may as well have something special about the evening, while you’re sitting there alone like Nobby No-Mates.

Go on, have a good one, you deserve it. All that effort to choose, and find, and afford those nice wines. And what a week you’ve had.

Don’t be daft, have a cheap one! It’s just you and your basic cooking. You’ll regret it if you open a good one alone.

Oh, stuff it. I’ll have a beer.


Thursday 18 February 2016

Who'd Have Thought? Aldi Encounter II

So the great Aldi experiment begins, and I wander around the house wringing my hands with anxiety about the outcome of a simple order of wine, then have to go out, then come home again, where I carry on wringing my hands before going out again the next day, coming home, wringing my hands some more, at which point the doorbell rings, and what do you know? It's the Aldi wine, a day early, delivered in an undamaged box, containing the correct number of bottles, each bottle containing the wine as ordered, and I am so thrilled and even appalled that I scarcely know what to do with it. I mean, this has never happened before: the successful completion of an uncomplicated online order of affordable booze. The case sits on the kitchen table while I inspect the contents and wonder about leaving it there permanently as a reminder of what can be achieved in this crazy, mixed-up world.

Eventually, though, I have to try one of the bottles. I go for the Kooliburra Shiraz, on account of its relative abundance and its cheerful demeanour. Not at all bad: unaffected, firm and fruity, no devastating side-effects, no great story to tell either, but at £3.99 a bottle I am so far from complaining that my mute acquiescence counts as a ringing endorsement, especially in the context of Kooliburra's rivals, and yes, I'm looking at you, Waitrose so-called Reserve Claret 2014, a wine so appalling that even I can't finish it.

That out of the way, I go onto the Crisp and Refreshing whites. Normally, Crisp and Refreshing is marketing code for Savagely Corrosive, but the first white off the blocks is a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc - a Freeman's Bay - which is so shapely, so fragrant, so deft in its acidity, that I almost pass out. How many life-affirming Sauvignon Blancs have I drunk? Nearly all of them have been somewhere on a continuum from Basically Underwhelming to Broadly Intolerable. But this Freeman's Bay is not just from another planet, it's from another solar system. And so it should be, at £5.89 a bottle.

I move on to the next white, a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, a lesser beverage, clearly (£4.89) but still quite okay, and then the project halts as I come down with my annual winter cold and nothing tastes of anything except a dank, featureless, grey, cardboardy sludge. The Chilean sits around half-finished and my wife complains heartlessly about the noise of my coughing. Still. There is much to look forward to in about a week's time, plus the prospect of repeating the process once I've got through this lot.

There is also the prospect of a raft of new Aldi stores opening up, not as an online manifestation, but eighty of the physical sort - please God let one be near me - bringing sensibly-priced impulse-buy booze that bit closer. Lidl, too, are supposed to be enlarging their empire, so it may even be that our house is gradually embraced by the two colonising powers, with their detergents, packet salami, fusewire, beige tights and instant coffee, and we yield to our bargain overlords in the way that the Tahitians were supposed to have yielded to Cook's expedition in 1769, with love and flowers and exotic dancing.

It is in fact all part of the New Branding, good enough and at a fair price becoming as covetable as something with a look-at-me label on it - leading to the gradual erasure of the costly London black cab by a Skoda from Uber; or the annihilation of Habitat by IKEA. Eventually, the fancy brands will retreat to airport terminals and suspended-reality shopping malls, my sweaters will cost next to nothing and my wine will be cheaper than two issues of the FT. Aldi's userfriendly everyday wines are a part of this process, and no, I haven't finished with you, Waitrose, your bargain wines are disgusting and even your slightly upscale stuff is generally disappointing, no, I'm not finished with you by a long chalk, although, wait a minute, this may be the fever speaking, my cold taking over, am I making any sense? Nurse!


Thursday 11 February 2016

Up, down and sideways – the wine on the shelves

When I heard that there was to be an investigation into wine retailers’ shelf placements,  I got rather excited.  But sadly, I find that it will all be about the possible skullduggery behind the choice of wines on supermarket shelves. The issues of shelf placement which concern me are somewhat different, however; for while I have no knowledge of how wines get on to the shelves, I do have some considerable experience in taking them off.

It’s now become accepted, for example, that the cheaper wines in supermarkets are placed on shelves as close as possible to the floor, so that in order to look at the labels, bargain-hunters have to squat on their haunches like simians.

Older customers groan as they hunker down to the lowest shelf, while even paupers baulk at kneeling in the spillage in aisle five. And women are forced to adopt what I believe is known in birthing circles as The Squatting Position of the Tonkawas.

Now, if we’re talking about skullduggery, why is this? Could it possibly be deliberate that spending less is made as physically difficult and unappealing as possible?

(The idea of putting the better stuff higher up is presumably derived from the notion that people will make an extra effort, when driven by desire and passion, to access products like good wine. Or porn.)

And then there is the selection destined for the Fine Wine shelving. In my own supermarket, this involves a tawdry wood-effect veneer cabinet which, along with a graphic of a bunch of grapes, actually says “Fine Wine” – whereas it might more accurately display a bunch of coins and say “Anything over a tenner”.

These more expensive wines in a supermarket are often stored horizontally, trading upon a folk knowledge that good wine should be stored flat. I doubt whether many shoppers could tell you why wine should be laid flat; to them, like a wine waiter offering forth a bottle for perusal, it simply suggests a touch of class.

And of course, most supermarket wines might just as well stand upright. They’re not going to age; most of them will be sold within a day or so; and the majority of them don’t even have corks.

Yet in one posh supermarket chain, they actually have a sort of presentation plinth, on which expensive and predominantly New World wines are segregated and laid out like the spokes of a wheel. It’s saying yes, these do come from places like Australia, and most of them have screwcaps, but we’re presenting them laid flat, so you should take them seriously.

Sure enough, many people now associate wine shelved horizontally with aspirational living. This is why kitchen manufacturers will fill up any space too small for an actual kitchen cabinet with a teensy little built-in wine rack. Here’s one in a kitchen corner, cleverly planned to take five bottles when wine comes in sixes. See how horizontal wine storage suggests a modern, classy lifestyle, along with your pastel kettle and Cath Kidston accessories? And how the top bottle is so classy, you will have to stand on one of your fashionably mismatched chairs in order to reach it?

Well, here is a word in the shell-like of Messrs Magnet; if a wine is good enough to benefit from being laid on its side, it is good enough not to shelve in the heat of the kitchen. Yes, it is a pain for me to go down to the cellar to retrieve a bottle, but less of a pain than finding my claret has been cooked in the steam from the sink.

It all reminds me of those little cradles in which posh restaurants used to lay expensive bottles of wine. Ostensibly, to keep them relatively horizontal and avoid pouring out sediment. And, coincidentally of course, to tell people at adjoining tables, who were drinking from ordinary, upright bottles of wine, that here was someone who had spent more than them.

Posh wine merchants have learnt from all this when it comes to the placement of their own bargains. Show ‘em low, show ‘em flat. In fact, forget shelves, put the bottles in open wooden cases on the floor. They’re selling so fast, we haven’t even got time to take them out of their boxes! Of course, wooden cases plus horizontal storage suggests undeniably classy wine. And like the prices, the cases are so low, they’re on the floor itself, even closer to the ground than the lowest supermarket shelf. Bargain!

Someone once asked me where to look for wine bargains. My answer still, I think, remains valid. Thanks to shelf placement, I was able to answer in a single word.



Thursday 4 February 2016

Aldi Encounter: Kooliburra Shiraz

So the good news is that Aldi have decided to offer an online wine delivery service. More than good news: up there with the Beatles releasing Hey Jude, it's that big. The thing about Aldi, and its coeval, Lidl, is that it's an adorable modern paradox - an aspirational discount supermarket, a place selling okay stuff at an affordable price, and so candid in its actions that middle-class bubbleheads like me are desperate to have one in the neighbourhood, partly to show the world our demotic love of a bargain, partly to drive down the prices in the adjoining Waitrose, partly to get away from the sheer chore of driving to Hounslow. And have you even tried to park in the Hounslow Aldi? It's always full, cars trailing out into the street like the rearguard of a defeated army. I mean it's hopeless.

However: here we are with a twinkly new wine website, in fact suspiciously sleek-looking, not the atmosphere of rent cardboard boxes and naked wooden pallets that I really want from Aldi as tokens of its good faith, but in we go, past something called the Exquisite Collection (a bunch of New Zealand Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Valpolicellas, all predictably sporting shingles from the IWSC) costing around £35 a half-dozen, a bit steep for my purposes, and onwards to a Kooliburra Australian Shiraz, much more like it at effectively £4 a bottle, plus some very fair customer reviews ('Cracking', 'Excellent', 'Reliable', 'A little rough round the edges, usually as an after effect') but what the hell is this? A 2013 Châteauneuf-du-Pape at £17 a bottle? Is this some kind of joke? Aldi?

Horrified, I run to the mixed cases, where I know there will be all kinds of muck going begging and, thank God, something calling itself Easy Drinking Reds jumps out, a bran-tub of Chilean Merlot, knock-off Chianti, tanker Pinot Noir, all sorts, £4 a bottle. Clearly, I am not going to get down to the magic £2.99 a throw, which would have been perfect (although now I think of it, the £2.99 Aldi Baron St Jean Vin De Pays I drank years ago was authentically disgusting), but we are where we are and I am determined to give the website a try.

The only thing which really causes me to hesitate is the fact that nearly every time I order wine to be delivered to my perfectly accesible house, something happens, an over-delivery, a non-delivery, an unwanted repeat delivery, it can't be predicted, but it will happen and it will make me vow never to buy mailorder again, at least until the next moment of slack-jawed inattention, seasoned with a kind of glib parsimony, steals over me and I make the same mistake, the same wilful confusion of the opportunistic and the short-sighted -

No: Aldi are going to be different, as well as cheap.

Ten minutes later: there it is, fixed up, a mixed half-case of Crisp and Refreshing Whites, price per bottle £5.11, yes, a bit grand, but you don't want to take too many chances with your Muscadet Sur Lie or your New Zealand Pinot Gris ('Just had it with a spicy pizza,' comments Mollymoo of Winchester, my kind of wine connoisseur), plus a six-pack of the Koliburra Shiraz. Total: £54.58, including free delivery, a clear inducement to get me to join the big Aldi community, the community which lives to give, an inducement which I have blithely accepted. Had I paid for delivery, that would have added another £3, at which point I might have started wondering if the convenience of having the stuff mis-delivered to my house wasn't outweighed by the price hit, and shouldn't I trudge down to Hounslow and the chaos of the carpark to see if there wasn't anything more affordable instore? But then that question has answered itself already, in the form of my refusal to get up and look for the car.

Actually, the only other thing which causes me to hesitate is that 2013 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Admittedly Aldi's stuff is going for less than other 2013 Châteauneuf-du-Pape offers I dig up on the internet, but it may just be a worse iteration of that vintage, I have no idea. No, the problem is the concept of Aldi selling anything for £17 - wine, an electric lawnmower, packet ham: no single item at Aldi should cost more than a tenner, or what's the point? It is a matter of trust, and trust, as we know, is the most precious component in any human interaction, especially when it comes to willing things to be better than they actually are. Still. I can't, in an apprehensive sort of way, wait to see how it turns out.