Thursday 31 March 2016

We two happy bunnies are having our Easter break – back next week!


Thursday 24 March 2016

Cheap wine – good, or no good?

When a Master of Wine lowers his sights to consider those of us scuffling amongst the bargains, it behoves us to raise our gaze from the bottom shelves to see what he has to say. And Richard Hemming MW recently turned his well-qualified vision to the wines offered by Aldi and Lidl.

If, as CJ wrote, “mute acquiescence counts as a ringing endorsement”, these are becoming something of a Sediment benchmark for cheap palatable wines. Mr Hemming MW admits that “they are almost without exception the very lowest possible price for their type”. But, it seems, that’s a bad thing.

“Such unrelenting focus on price, however, risks skewing the perspective of the consumer,” writes Mr Hemming MW. “If you can buy perfectly good Sancerre Rosé for less than £10, why pay more?”

Well…exactly. Why indeed?

But Mr Hemming MW suggests that we should. Pay more, that is. He asks whether we are potentially damaging the whole wine industry, by buying good quality wine at a low price.

“That not only puts pressure on independent retailers (who are experiencing falling sales according to this week's Wine Merchant survey), it potentially strips profitability out of the supply chain, all the way down to producers.”

Now, I would not claim to be an expert on the mechanics of the free market, but I think one principle of competition is that if someone can offer something for less, someone ultimately will – and everyone in the supply chain just has to adjust accordingly.

But I can also add to my A-Level in Economics some forty-odd years interim experience of buying stuff. And I think I can safely predict that the customers of independent wine merchants are not going to decamp en masse to Lidl and Aldi.

Take, say, Corney & Barrow. 230 years old, headquartered in the City, two Royal warrants and an ampersand. “Sometimes,” they wrote to me this week, “we have to pinch ourselves given the sheer length and breadth of our Fine Wine Broking List.”

Their customers probably don’t fancy driving to the outskirts and serving themselves, in a glorified shed, surrounded by pallets, busted cardboard boxes, and packets of processed German meats. While someone keys their Mercedes.

Yes, you can order Aldi wines online, and have them delivered. But you don’t see Aldi lorries competing for parking spaces in Knightsbridge with the Berry Bros vans. There may be a certain kudos these days, a kind of austerity chic, in unearthing bargains, and in demonstrating to the world that one is a shrewd shopper.But still, the thought of an Aldi lorry outside one’s pied a terre? Rather like seeing the bailiffs arrive, old chap! Wasn’t this year’s bonus up to scratch, then?

“I can't help thinking,” Mr Hemming MW goes on, “that as the discounters continue to grow, their low price strategy could threaten the diversity of our market.” Really? Because there’s still a diverse range of cheeses and coffees on the market at independent retailers (or, as we call them, chi-chi delis), even though you can get cheap, strangely-named but perfectly palatable cheese, or coffee, on any discount supermarket’s shelf.

And some of us would be quite content with cheap, strangely-named but perfectly palatable wine.

Or is Mr Hemming MW saying that cheap wine shouldn’t be palatable? That the wide range of great wines which an MW enjoys is only possible because paupers like us with untrained palates mop up the low-priced rubbish, which maintains the viability of the quality market?

You could view cheap wine as an entry into the whole world of wine, after which a customer might upgrade to the variety and quality and service of an independent wine merchant. In which case, it’s surely a good thing if that entry level wine is decent, and doesn’t put people off ever opening another bottle.

But it also assumes that the more “diverse” stuff from the independent merchants actually merits its higher price. And it’s up to the industry (including the MWs) to explain that merit to the public.

It’s wonderful that there is a bewilderingly huge variety of wines to explore. But there are also some of us, less affluent and less adventurous perhaps, who would happily settle for a “perfectly good Sancerre Rosé for less than £10”.

Or are we victims of a “skewed perspective”?


Thursday 17 March 2016

Another Week In Wine: Chianti And Picpoul

Monday: So Monday is a day without booze. Only tea, coffee or water. I go to bed feeling pointlessly virtuous.

Tuesday: This continues into Tuesday morning. Normally I get up after a drink-free day complaining piously to my wife that what do you know but that I actually feel slightly more hungover than when I've been drinking? What a paradox! Today, though, I actually feel slightly brighter than usual. I don't know if this is a good thing or not. A charming email arrives from Luca Turin, one of the geniuses behind Perfumes:The A - Z Guide. I realise that I forgot to mention, in my original rant, an advert for Tom Ford's Noir Extreme fragrance for men, found in an in-flight magazine and containing this imperishable garbage: 'An amber-drenched, woody oriental fragrance with a tantalising and delectable heart, Noir Extreme captures the aspect of the man who relishes in immoderation and dares to be extraordinary.' I am also so overwhelmed by the need not to lose face with Dr. Turin that it takes me a further two days to craft an intelligible reply.
Today's wine: Estevez Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, one of the whites I acquired from Aldi a couple of weeks ago. Not bad for £4.89, but not quite as terrific as the Freeman's Bay Sauvignon Blanc with which I started, the Chilean stuff revealing just a bit too much Listerine in the finish. And in the start. Next time drink the cheaper stuff first, I remind myself.

Wednesday: Aldi send an email, asking me to rate their wines. Cunningly, I send them a link to the piece in which I enthused about their service, their products, their prices. Within half an hour they have replied, informing me that my review does not meet their criteria. Idiots.
Today's wine: beer, in a pub.

Thursday: The morning is largely spent reading and re-reading PK's latest post, marvelling at his wit, envying his sagacity, falling into a stupor of admiration at his use of the word oenological. How does he do it?
Today's wine: I end up in a wine bar, where the drink being consumed is a Picpoul de Pinet Sel et Sable, chosen by my fellow-drinker, a person who knows his way around a wine list. It looks a bit top dollar, but off we go anyway. After a quarter of an hour we're running our tongues around our teeth like old men at a dog track, and it seems that the apparently impeccable Picpoul is a bit wild with its acidity. I don't know who first coined the phrase Wine IS red (last time I heard it, it was being attributed to Pete Townsend) but I'm starting to worry. Is it an age-related thing, this nervousness which increasingly attends the white?

Friday: A friend who claims to have a friend who used to deal in reclaimed wine (I can't remember if I've mentioned this before), reveals that this friend-of-a-friend doesn't much want to talk to me about his moody wine past, for any number of reasons. A shame, since the way this wine reclamation business was painted to me, it sounded pretty fabulous: the guy in question used to collect bulk wines from concerns that could no longer use it - SNCF in France, for instance, who might have a load of time-expired rosé in waxed cartons - which the guy would load into his van before driving it back to England, unloading it in a lock-up under some railway arches in London and re-bottling it as Fruity Red or Crisp White or indeed Floral Rosé and supplying it to, among others, Oddbins in one of their previous incarnations. I'll never know how much truth there is or was in any of it. I suppose I could keep repeating the story until someone either corroborates it or issues a writ for defamation.
Today's wine: still apprehensive about whites, I leave the Chilean stuff to rot a day longer in the fridge, and get out a flash-looking bottle of 2011 Chianti Classico which must have come from somewhere, once. It's disgusting, tasting like the bottom of a desk drawer, including spilled ink and human dust. What's the point of the little paper collar round the neck, complete with immense serial number and QR code, or the little black cockerel, if they don't denote some kind of quality? Why am I even asking this? I've drunk a ton of foul Italian wines, mostly with paper collars and the full bureaucratic imprimatur. All I ever learn is that I am incapable of ever learning.

Saturday: I take my watch to the jeweller's for a new battery, and am told it will need a full service, costing £200.
Today's wine: beer + immense Thai meal, partly to get over the watch shock.

Sunday: Two wines are still current at home - the now-senile Chilean white and the bastard Chianti. I eventually get outside the white and take a swig of the Chianti, on the off-chance that it might have had a complete personality re-think. It hasn't, and I end the day actively looking forward to a Monday of abstention. My week in wine: it's come to this.


Thursday 10 March 2016

Chocolate Wine – I should cocoa…

Sometimes you put two wonderful things together, and the combination is even greater than the sum of its parts. The bacon sandwich.

Sometimes, the combination can only lead to disaster. The bacon hat.

And into one of those two groups must fall… chocolate wine.

Yes, chocolate wine. Is it any coincidence that I spotted this as we approach the chocolate avalanche that is Easter?  I can only assume that this product has been created, not by a winemaker or a chocolatier, but a marketing department. Take two flavours redolent of connoisseurship. luxury and refinement, two items often given as gifts, two audiences which overlap in tastes, and, er, bung them together. 

Oh, and put on a label which employs the eau de nil colour of Fortnum & Mason, subliminally suggestive of sophistication. Even if that’s unlikely to be attained in £6 worth of wine. Or, for that matter, chocolate.

“Chocolate Drop is specially crafted” says the label “for those who adore chocolate.” No mention, however, of one’s feelings towards wine.

Which is just as well, for this is “A smooth mellow red British Wine”. Note the capital letters. British Wine, as the label acknowledges, is “made with imported grape juice”, an intriguing concept in itself. Why not import actual wine? Presumably because anything created as actual wine would not achieve the same balance between low cost and high, nay, teeth-clenching sweetness.

So what we have here is “An imaginative blend of Red British Wine with luxurious Dark Chocolate flavours.” Note at the end of that sentence the weasel word, “flavours”.

What’s with blends being “imaginative”? Would we not be more enthusiastic if we saw an adjective like “successful”? I mean, we can all “imagine” combinations of ingredients; since Heston produced the snail porridge and the meat fruit, it’s surely only a matter of time before someone “imagines” the beef lolly and the fish biscuit.

But the potential for blending two popular and marketable products like chocolate and wine is clearly irresistible, especially for Broadlands Wineries, whose oenological misfortune it is to be located in Norfolk.

Visually, this chocolate wine is a triumph. An odd thing to say, perhaps, but despite its unpromising provenance, it looks exactly like red wine. There’s no deeper colouring, or visible suspension, to alert you to anything untoward. It has you fooled.

So it comes as a shock when you inhale the bouquet, and get an acrid hit of cocoa. It’s like a slap in the face. It’s wrong. Imagine a cup of coffee which smells of fish.

It has none of the flavour of wine at all. It’s a cold, thin, immensely sweet cocoa-flavoured alcoholic drink. The “wine” here is simply a 12% alcoholic delivery mechanism. It merely provides a liquid, and one which lacks the satisfying viscosity of a chocolate liqueur, the warmth of a hot cocoa, or the creaminess of a drinking chocolate.

When it comes to taste, I like chocolate as much as the next man, unless perhaps the next man is John Cadbury.  And to me, the “luxurious Dark Chocolate flavours” are reminiscent of a previous attempt to yoke together two products popular at the time – chocolate cigarettes. Anyone else remember those Rizla-wrapped cylinders of brown, fatty chocolate? No wonder they had to be withdrawn; even a child, tired of trying to emulate Bogart or Bacall, found the chocolate itself a nasty, cheap disappointment. And took up smoking instead.

Look, you can’t just put together two disparate things, however popular, and hope for success. That’s why I abandoned my idea of the rubber television (“It’ll take whatever you throw at it!”).

Although, there’s a chocolatier near me who specialises in chocolate shoes. Seriously.

The bacon hat can’t be far off. Just don’t come running to me with seagulls swooping at your head.


Thursday 3 March 2016

Perfumes: The A to Z Guide, by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez - One Day All Wine Books Will Be Like This

So I must be the last person on the planet to have come across Perfumes: The A to Z Guide, especially since it originally came out in 2008 and now needs an update, but better late than never (and thank you to the, yes, female, friend who introduced me to it quite casually one evening as if it was the most natural thing in the world) because Perfumes is such a virtuoso mixture of comedy, polemic, full-on High Style and sheer vindictiveness that it transcends time and mere utility. Does it matter if you don't care about fragrances? Not a jot. Does it matter if your grooming regime is basically a spritz of something from a can after the morning shower, followed by sixteen hours of kidding yourself that you don't smell like a train seat? No. Does it matter if you care even marginally about the way we try to render our perceptions through language? It does.

How can I be so sure? Well, try this assault on something called Lulu Guinness: 'Thin screechy floral, a version of Beyond Paradise made for Moldavian railway stations, packaged in an opaque glass baby-perfume white bottle nearly identical to the one made (by the same firm, a year later) for Nanette Lepore. Nice creative work all round.' Or, more briefly, this microassesment of Armani Mania Pour Homme: 'The smell of Home Depot hammers and lumber'. That's it, that's all Armani Mania Pour Homme merits! The thunderclap of rhetorical concision! Or Bleecker Street, from Bond No. 9: 'Green, watery...a dreadful hiss like cheap speakers'. These are words urgently at work, not lounging around regarding themselves pettishly in the mirror or paring their nails.

Are Turin and Sanchez capable only of hatred? Not in the least. Tubéreuse, by Annick Goutal, gets this hymn: 'A tuberose for purists, this floral presents the material in all its unrepresentable glory: rubber tyres, steak tartare, Chinese muscle rub and all' - a review both stern and wistful at the same time, florid but unsentimental. And indeed my review of their review catches something of that tone, I like to think. Givenchy III (five star rating) is 'A wonderful thing, quite a bit drier than the original but none the worse for it, and quicker getting into the strings-only leafy-green heart': flirting dangerously, yes, with elements of wine writer deep gibberish, but just about getting away with it. Elsewhere and on the other hand, the two authors burnish their credentials by being as candid and down-to-earth as you like, and winning you over that way. Sanchez: 'It's an axiom that the more hideous you find a fragrance, the more tenacious it is'. Turin: 'Being a guy is not always pleasant, but at least, like balding and belching, it does not require much work'.

Best of all, their critiques, like all the best criticism, are capable of making you want to go right out and try the thing being critiqued. Who'd have thought that Old Spice would have made it past the selectors? But it does, being called, rather brilliantly, 'A delicious Tabu-like oriental, whose claim to be a masculine is based entirely on its transience. A man is a woman consisting entirely of top notes'. Why did I ever throw away that old bottle, with its white plastic bung and its square-rigger on the front and its top notes? Where can I get some more?

You can see where this is going. Most, if not all, wine writing is pompous or self-serving or ludicrously self-regarding or just lame, and I do not exclude Sediment from these strictures. But how fantastic would it be to find a directory of drinks which contained even half the vigour, invention, learning and corruscating mirthfulness of Perfumes. PK and I are too old and ignorant and stupid to get anywhere near, but there must be someone out there with the same kind of animating genius as Turin and Sanchez, some person or persons capable of writing a definitive, literate, heart-stoppingly offensive wine guide. Yes, wine is a much bigger and more diverse subject than scent, but come on. Just consider this, about Ralph Lauren's Romance Men: 'The fragrance is so unmemorable that the only appropriare review is "It has a smell"'. What about that on your least favourite Gevrey-Chambertin?