Thursday 28 April 2016

A tale of two Waitrose Chiantis

It’s a typically baffling supermarket juxatposition.  Two Chiantis on a Waitrose shelf, with only £1 but an entire presentational world between them.

Chianti used to be a very popular, even sophisticated wine. Even though it’s hard to find in those straw flasks any more, that particular blow to sales for the DIY tablelamp industry has been resolved, by the ingenuity and bad taste of those who decided that a bottle itself would suffice.

But Chianti is no longer an indication of la dolce vita. As Oz Clarke complained, “Chianti has slid so far down the price ladder in recent years that the best one could say of it is that it is cheap and cheerful”.

So on the left is a £5.99 Waitrose version. It is indeed cheap. Let’s see whether it leaves us cheerful.

Note the bold, idiot-proof declaration, Chianti, in stand-out red. The faux-stamped vintage. The screw-cap. And the label copy, which reads: A region whose boundaries were once contested on horseback.

Why would you make this pointless statement? In what way is this intended to aid your choice, to assist your purchasing decision, of a bottle of wine?

(And indeed, given the historic ubiquity of mounted forces, is there a region on earth which was not once contested on horseback?)

Product of Italy, it declares in red script. Product of Italy, it declares again in a faux stamp. But the thing in which the middle class will put most faith means more than all the guarantees, paper seals, DOCG numbers and Ministry of Agriculture logos with which Italy festoons their bottles. It’s the word at the bottom of the label – Waitrose.

Next to it on the shelf, for just £1 more, is the Poggio Castagno Chianti Classico. Yes, a Classico, with all the additional constraints that places upon it. It has been reduced, from a relatively whopping £10.79 to £6.99. And what you see appears to be a much more traditional product, from the label’s script and serif typefaces, to the delicate depiction of the vineyard, to the use of a cork. The red on the label is a little darker and less shouty. And the bottle itself is even a fraction larger, as if it stands a little prouder. This is a bottle which could appear on my dining table, especially given that the word Waitrose does not. 

(For every customer reassured by the presence of that word, there is another embarrassed by it. Like Boden.)

Hidden in the small print is the fact that actually, this is a Piccini chianti. Said to be reponsible for 15% of all chianti production, various Piccini chiantis are also on the shelves at Sainsbury, Tesco, Morrison’s et al. But this one is “born from the passion, the love and experience of Piccini Family (sic)”. So it’s not as if they just produced it.

“Sangiovese,” they enthuse, “is the soul of this Chianti Classico…”, glossing over the fact that, by law, sangiovese is the soul of every Chianti Classico.

Creeping like snail unwillingly, it’s time to drink them. And the Waitrose Chianti is a shallow affair, harshly green around the gills, and lacking any depth or complexity. But the Poggio Castagno is, in a way, more disappointing, because its presentation – to say nothing of its £10.79 original price tag – leads me to expect something significantly better. And it’s only a marginal improvement, losing that clench around the edges and gaining in resonance, but still not a rich or complex wine. Possibly £1 better, yes, but certainly not the 80% improvement its original price might suggest.

So no, I am not cheerful. Except that perhaps I have found the evidence for a brilliant line from an Elizabeth McCracken short story.

This is “Wine for people who either don’t drink wine, or drink too much of it.”


Thursday 21 April 2016

Sainsbury's Portugese Red

This week's style icon: Dan Brown

Sophie stared at Langdon for a long time, then turned to Teabing.

'It looks like a bottle of wine,' she said. 'But what is it? And why is vino spelled vinho?'

Langdon understood her confusion. It had taken him years as a symbologist to become familiar with the rules of deception which so many cryptographers practised.

'Vinho,' he said quietly, 'is the Portugese for wine. And Tinto means red.'

'Portugese,' grinned Teabing. 'A language spoken in only two countries in the entire world. Someone's been very clever.'

Uncertain, Sophie glanced up. 'But how does this tie in with the miracle of Saint Fructuosus of Braga?'

'Saint Fructuosus? One of Portugal's most revered saints.' Teabing smiled. 'A seventh-century bishop, famed for the monasteries he founded as well as for the miracle in which he was saved by divine intervention from being attacked by a peasant. He might have drunk a wine very like this, once. We know that there's some kind of association. What bothers me, though, is this inscription at the base: Winemakers' Selection. It's like nothing I've seen before.'

Langdon leaned forward and scanned the nineteen characters, noting the precise and detailed way the cryptographer had imprinted them on the paper.

'You're right,' he said, thoughtfully. 'It appears to make no sense.'

Sophie leaned forward. Her childhood uprbringing, her years of training, everything told her that this meant something. But what?

'It's an anagram,' she cried, with a gasp.

Langdon looked up. 'A what?'

'A cryptogram in which the letters of a word or message are rearranged to form another word or words, thereby disguising the original sense.' Sophie leaned back with a frown.

Langdon raised his eyebrows. Sophie was right, of course. Her intuition in these matters was faultless. An anagram. He started to recompose the nineteen letters in his mind. There was a pattern there, he was sure of it. His heartbeat quickened. It had to mean something. Then, with a cry, he sat up.

'It's obvious.'

'To you, perhaps,' said Teabing ruefully. 'But not to the likes of us.'

'Winemakers' Selection is an anagram of In Some Clan Seek, Write. Even the comma is preserved in the form of an apostrophe.'

Teabing sat up with a gasp. 'Of course! The legend that Saint Fructuosus of Braga visited Scotland at some point before his death in 665.'

Sophie gasped. 'Scotland?' she cried.

'Yes,' Teabing went on, his faced flushed with excitement, 'much as Saint Aidan founded the monastery at Lindisfarne in 634, or Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century. The story has it that Saint Fructuosus of Braga landed on the east coast of Scotland to found a monastic order which then disappeared - leaving only a handful of precious relics, preserved by pious clansmen but now scattered across the Catholic world. A story, I need hardly add, which has been the centre of much heated conjecture over the centuries.'

Sophie's eyes widened. 'And Hibernian, the Leith-based football team, is an anagram of Iberia, the ancient name of the peninsula which includes Spain and Portugal, with the addition of the letters n and h.'

'Which are the beginning and terminal letters of the word North,' added Langdon with a start. 'Making Hibernian a Northern Iberia.'

'So Scotland is really the Portugal of the North?' Sophie's head was spinning as she tried to make sense of the reality dawning on her.

'There's one other thing.' Teabing leaned forward to examined the parchment more closely. 'These numbers - twelve point five per cent over here; and seventy-five over here. What can they refer to?'

'The percentage mark is a later addition, I'm sure of it.' Langdon sat back with a sigh. 'Put there to mislead us. No, the numbers alone are what matter.' He gazed absently out of the window, feeling at a loss. What to make of it? Twelve and a half and seventy-five. What was the connection? Then he sat up with a start. 'One sixth. That's the relationship. Twelve and a half is one sixth of seventy-five. This bottle is one of six bottles, six being a numerical grouping well-known to mystics of the early church.'

Teabing's smile vanished. 'Then, my friends, we are in more deeply than I first realised. You've heard of the Sacred Order of The Brotherhood of Braga?'

Langdon shook his head, the hair on his forearms rising.

'The Sacred Order,' Teabing went on, 'is one of the most secretive in the entire hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church. Only six high-ranking priests are members, the number six - formed by multiplying the number of the Holy Trinity by the dual nature of Christ - governs all their actions, Saint Fructuosus of Braga is held to be their founder, and what we have here is nothing less than a bottle containing one-sixth of the precious blood of Saint Fructuosus himself!' He paused and looked pale for a moment. 'And I'm sure our friend His Eminence Humberto João da Serra would be most interested to know of its whereabouts.'

Sophie sat back with a gasp.


Thursday 14 April 2016

Worth the weight? Berry Bros claret competition

A chance to win your weight in wine! And to join the ranks of claret-downing Regency gentlemen! Of course I’m excited!

Berry Bros & Rudd, the grand old St James's wine merchant, have announced this competition. The winner, they say, will be weighed upon their historic scales, as was once the fashion, and win their weight in wine. 

This is presumably the kind of scene they envisage:

Could it be better suited to me? It looks as if I had just wandered in and sat down, mildly confused as to whether this is my seat at Stamford Bridge.

You will also get the opportunity to have your name and weight inscribed in their leather-bound records, alongside such figures as Lord Byron, Beau Brummell, Charles Fox and William Pitt. Which frankly is where I feel my name ought to be inscribed as a wine drinker, rather than on the mailing list at Laithwaites.

To enter, you simply have to buy during April a case of their Good Ordinary Claret. (Or White equivalent, if you are a wet.) This is not a hardship; if anything, it is a jolly good excuse. “What is that box which was delivered today, dear, which looked suspiciously like a case of wine?” 

“Just a competition entry, darling!”

This is not the first ‘win your weight’ competition I have seen. I remember once the opportunity to ‘Win your Weight in Pick n’Mix’, a fabulously appealing competition which probably contributed to the downfall in the UK of both Woolworth’s, and NHS dentistry.

But Berry Bros have shrewdly waited until now to offer their own prize. Once, your weight was an indication of your wealth; the Aga Khan weighed in on their scales at over 17 stone, and their record stands at 26 stone 7 lbs.

But the days of portly rich gentlemen, Falstaffian peers and rotund mill owners has clearly passed. A Prince Regent is unlikely to waddle in.The heavyweights in society today are less likely to be drinkers of claret than of Vimto and Irn Bru.

Which means that a svelte and lissom modern gentleman, like me (hem, hem), could be at something of a disadvantage. So I have started doing the maths on this. (No, not ‘math’ singular, American readers, for I have not been doing the ‘mathematic’ but the ‘mathematics’, so you are all fool.)

First, a little disappointment. The small print says that “The scales will be balanced with cases and bottles of either Good Ordinary Claret or Good Ordinary White.” So you’ll actually win your weight in bottles of wine. That’s a significant difference to your weight in actual wine, because a bottle itself weighs over half a kilo. But it wouldn’t make such a good headline to say “Win Your Weight in Bottles of Wine”. Or, even worse, “Win 60% of your weight in wine, and 40% of your weight in glass”.

Quibbling aside, I calculate I would win some 66 bottles of claret. Which clearly, if I am to drink like a Regency buck, requires some improvement.

At this time of year, the gentlemen of St James’s should be leaving their winter coats at home – by “the week commencing 23rd May”, when the weigh-in takes place, they should be in their linen suits and Panama hats. However, I have always felt the cold and believe me, whatever the weather in the week commencing 23rd May, I think I’ll be wearing my full-length wool overcoat, a magnificent long, swirling item which has attracted many comments over the years, not all of them abusive. And which weighs almost two bottles in itself. Over a wool three-piece suit. With Royal brogues (which, incidentally, weigh 1lb 6oz apiece, another bottle in the bag.) I may be hot, but by God I’ll be heavy.

(Berry Bros can hardly object, According to their history, Beau Brummell was weighed by them some 40 times, always in “Boots”, sometimes in “Great Coat” as well. So that’s as close to common practice as you can get, given a two-hundred year hiatus.)

I will also fill my pockets with loose change, something Berry Bros will not anticipate, as coins are traditionally scorned by gentlemen. (The St James’s club Boodle’s once had a rule that because of its contact with the common classes, any silver coins had to be boiled, and dried by swinging in a leather bag, before being given to a member.)

And how much weight can my body itself gain between learning that I’ve won, and getting weighed? Robert de Niro put on 60 lbs for Raging Bull, and that’s 21 bottles. But it took him four months, and I’ll have little over three weeks. So just point me towards that all-you-can-eat buffet.

Will it work? In the year 1733, at the peak of his career, Walpole purchased seven hogsheads of Margaux, three of Lafite, and one of Haut Brion. Yes, he entertained a good deal, but he got through the equivalent of 234 bottles of luxury claret. Every month.

He also weighed 20 stone. Bring those donuts to the sofa, would you?


Thursday 7 April 2016

Utterly Futile: Wine Pairing

So I open the freesheet that now comes with every train ride, and what do you know but some guy called Amit Sharma (not the cricketer) has written a piece in which he pairs wines with classic rock and jazz albums. Nevermind, by Nirvana, gets a Clare Valley Riesling; Led Zeppelin IV, a Fattoria di Basciano I Pini; Sgt. Pepper, a South African Chardonnay; Kind of Blue a Ribera del Duero (although the Oddbins website actually recommends Bob Marley as the background music for this particular wine, whereas Sharma teams Bob with an Australian Dolcetto/Lagrein mix. Who'd have thought?). 

Given that wine pairing of any sort is such a barren and footling activity, you might just as well go nuts and pair up things that make no sense at all, I mean, classic Grunge and Riesling, Michael Jackson and Beaune, what's the harm? We've certainly mixed our media - PK with his groundbreaking wine in a bath; me, with my equally urgent and relevant TV + wine meditation. Anything, I think it's fair to say, is better than the thickwit banalities of conventional food and wine pairings.

Nor are we alone. Matthew Latkiewicz, on the excellent McSweeney's site, writes about Wine & Playing Pool, noting on the way that 'If you're spending much time on the food pairing, you aren't spending enough time not being a douchebag'; while 'Wine is, you'll excuse the phrase, kind of a pussy drink'; and 'I actually worry that wine has made me sort of dumb.' Mainly, he argues that wine plus the game of pool is a bad pairing, rather than a desirable one. But that's good to know, too.

Greg Gonzalez, in his book Playing With Wine, discusses such wine-pairable activities as yoga, burying a dead goldfish (Riesling, again), dealing with an IRS audit, and painting ('If you are painting a room then opt for a nicely chilled Pinot Grigio. It can refresh you and can also be used to clean the brushes'). similarly goes for a wine and paint match, claiming that 'Here in Omaha there are a few places whose business is to provide you wine and art supplies for an awesome night out.' Such as? Corky Canvas, 'Where you're sure to uncork your creativity!'; or Pinot's Palette ('Corporate events and house parties'); both looking like a ton of fun, both making that leap from mere boozing to out-and-out creative self-actualisation, both in Omaha - the geographical dead centre of the United States and home of the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.

Best of the bunch? Could just be Wine and Sex: The Ultimate Pairing?, from the Vinography site. 'The best combo I know of,' writes blogger Alder Yarrow, 'is a bottle of something good and some skin-to-skin contact'. Moreover, 'I'm firmly in the wine before sex category, though I've never complained about a well chilled glass of Champagne afterwards'. But beware: 'As with any wine match, I think it's important to get the proportions correct, but this may be more important with wine and sex than with other pairings. Too little and you might as well not have had any. Too much and things can get sloppy.' I love this guy.

And since we've got this far, why stop? Wine & writing is an obvious pairing (I'm thinking William Faulkner, Malcolm Lowry, Dorothy Parker, although just about anyone would do short of Jane Austen, although, actually, she quite liked a glass). Then there's wine & music (Keith Richards, Dean Martin, same as writers); wine & motor racing (Mike Hawthorn); wine & conjuring (Tommy Cooper); wine & American Football (Joe Namath); wine & Association Football (George Best); wine & physics (Sir William Rowan Hamilton); wine & politics (Pitt the Younger, Herbert Asquith, Ted Kennedy); wine & despotism (Caligula); wine & the prosecution of a World War (Winston Churchill). There is in fact nothing that wine cannot accompany, not excluding cheeseburgers, porridge, playing the piano, gefilte fish, surgery and piloting an aircraft, although these last two normally work better in an alcohol-free environment. Wine goes with things. That's all there is to be said on the matter. Now let us never speak of it again.