Thursday 29 September 2016

White wine? You cannot be serious – Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc

Is white wine taken seriously? The Times recently interviewed Jeremy Paxman over a lunch. Tomato salad and mutton, since you ask.  And the journalist reported that to go with the food, Paxman ordered “a glass of white wine (which he believes doesn’t count as real booze)”.

Well, I’m glad someone else has said it. Because I’m not sure myself that white wine is taken seriously.

Let’s face it, when you think of wine, you think of red wine. I’ve quoted before the essayist Christopher Hitchens, who ordered a glass of wine in a restaurant and was then asked by a waiter whether that was red or white. Hitchens retorted, “Wine. Is. Red.”

I don’t recall the New Testament specifying the colour of wine, whether it was accompanying lamb or fish. But most of the Old Masters confidently painted it red. And Bette Davis said that you should "Never, never trust anyone who asks for white wine. It means they're phonies."

Yes, there are lunches in Pall Mall gentlemen’s clubs, with Dover Sole and a bone-dry Chablis, but that’s more of a ritual than a meal with a drink.

And when you offer Champagne, everyone starts oohing and aahing as if you’ve just shown them a baby. But that’s nothing to do with the taste; it’s because it’s a statement of celebration. Champagne is like a footman’s announcement that gaiety is now in order.

So my heart sank when it emerged that, for dietary reasons, our recent Sunday lunch for guests had to be planned around fish. Which meant that I would not have the excuse of social generosity required in order to open one of my heavyweight clarets.

Of course, the wine still had to be good. There’s little worse than bad white wine. I can only assume, from the colour of the analogy, that it was a white to which DH Lawrence was referring when he complained of a Spanish wine that “this is the sulphurous urination of some aged horse."

But fortunately, back in May, CJ and I found ourselves at a Laithwaite’s tasting, on an excursion which was part fact-finding mission, part… well, there had to be a laugh in it. Little were we to know that this particular tasting would be Tweeted later that day by Jancis Robinson (no less) as “the best tasting of @Laithwaites wines I have ever been to. 

"Probably most expensive too,” she admitted, “but there are treats & some real value.”

Indeed; for there I encountered Dog Point,  a genuinely delicious Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, with all that traditional fruit salad of gooseberries and grapefruit, balanced with a crisp edge and minerally finish. Gorgeous; but at £19.99, was this even a treat, let alone real value? It was hard to consider properly, given the distraction of  CJ’s price point flabbergastation.

However, never let it be said that Sediment does not provide a reader service, even if that’s basically a euphemism for miserliness. Laithwaites currently sell the 2015 for £17.99 (“Save £2.00 – was £19.99”!)  However, Winedirect get it down to £15.50 by the case, although there’s a delivery charge. And then, God bless ‘em, there’s the Wine Society, at £13.50 a bottle with free delivery. That’s knocked it down by £6.49 a bottle. Well, presumably old Tony Laithwaite can’t drive it in his borrowed van all the way back from New Zealand.

Anyway, on Sunday, it went down well. In fact, I’d forgotten just how well white wine goes down. Even when it has a decent alcohol content, white wine doesn’t seem to receive the slow, serious, savouring respect of drinking a red. It was like watching a sink emptying.

And there was nothing for me to talk about. No years in the cellar, no en primeur gamble, no purchasing trip. No story to tell – other than how I had saved a third on the price, hardly something a host shouts about.

So I’ve come reluctantly to the conclusion that, however enjoyable, people don’t take white wine seriously. You’re not going to make any kind of impression with white wine. Unless you want to convey the impression that you’re someone who drinks white wine. Which, despite this little triumph, I don’t.


Thursday 22 September 2016

Jefford Redux: Montepulciano D'Abruzzo

So PK nudges me in the direction of a recent, unexpectedly strait-laced, article by Andrew Jefford on the importance of writing comprehensible taster's notes. This seems fair enough, and I can't fault Mr. Jefford's line of argument, but it doesn't stop there: the article contains, nested within it, an even more surprising piece of self-admonition, a great chunk of humility centering around the tendency of most wine writers to write badly and affectedly - and containing this mea culpa from Jefford himself: 'The language of tasting notes is practically unhelpful, and at best seen as "bulls**t". I've often thought this myself; indeed I feel uneasy for having based my career in part on it.'

Well. Now I hardly know which way to turn, especially since I once took a petulant swipe at Mr. Jefford for writing (among other things) this, about a Merlot: 'The 2009 brims with richness (cream, vellum, faded roses) and thick-textured, late-Romantic, Rosenkavalier-like decadence'. There you go. Scroll forward a year or so and he's positively hectic with remorse, declaring that 'Most wine descriptions possess zero literary merit', with the result that 'You end up with wine nerds writing for wine nerds, in an excitable, echo-filled ghetto'. Well, of course: most wine writing is a kind of anti-writing, a resistence to sense, but what a mixed-up age we live in, that Andrew Jefford should promote the idea that winespeak is a bad thing.

Back I go to the original piece - How to write wine tasting notes - my heart full of confused hope. And yes, Mr. Jefford, Mr. Rosenkavalier, is sober and to the point - No fruit salad, he warns us at the start, and he's right. Be partisan is another of his injunctions, but this amounts to not much more than the assertion that If you like it, make sure we know that, and why. Which is borderline gnomic and only gets me so far, but at least it's plain-spoken. The thing concludes with another link, this time to a Berry Bros. & Rudd-related guide, hiding under the sublimely commonplace headline How to understand wine.

This, in turn, and to my growing dismay, deals with really basic stuff, stuff even I have heard of although never properly mastered, stuff like acidity, fruit, alcohol, tannins - I mean, aren't we implicitly meant to be familiar with these concepts, so familiar that we can dispense with them altogether and start reaching for the thick textures and the faded roses? What, exactly, is going on here? Was the dial of wine appreciation reset while I was looking the other way, and now stands somewhere in the mid-1960s, a time when no-one knew anything about wine - no-one except a handful of the rich and/or privileged, people who embraced terms such as conoisseurship and cellar, terms so comically fusty only PK still feels comfortable with them?

I return once again to Jefford's How to write wine tasting notes, armed with an averagely loathsome Montepulciano D'Abruzzo, acquired from somewhere. The usual criteria: screwtop, 13%, price as near £5 as I can make it, hallucinatory copywriter's drivel on the label - A rich red wine with layer upon layer of damson and morello cherry flavours. One of those.

I test the Jefford system. 1: No fruit salad. Analogical descriptors are useful - if used in moderation. Limit yourself to half a dozen at most. Okay: it's kind of harsh and fruity, like a factory-made apple and blackberry pie. 2: Remember the structure. There is no structure, so far as I can see, just a mainstream whoof followed by an abiding sense of loss. 3: Balance is all. See 2. 4: Be partisan. I love this kind of wine, principally because it's relatively cheap and available. 5: Be comprehensive. I've mentioned the screwtop, the price range, the copy on the label, what else is there? Tell us its past and future, Jefford suggests, but this is a wine without either, only a coarse and unedifying present, perhaps a hint of stainless steel containers, the poetry of pipework and tanker trucks. 6: What else? See 5. And that's it, I'm done. 

Still, I think Jefford is onto something, here. Given the mixture of snobbery and pedantry that pervades most wine appreciation, I can't see his revisonist, back-to-basics ethos gaining much traction, but we must hope. After all, it's human nature to discard old cultures in favour of new. What if we called the new approach, Brutalist Wine Writing? It's got a ring to it, it sounds as if it means business. No, New Brutalist Wine Writing, that's better. If it was a magazine, I'd buy it.


Thursday 15 September 2016

The Social Significance of Shoes – and Wine

I cannot understand how some people fail to appreciate the significance of their shoes. After all, if you are badly shod, you can hardly put your best foot forward.

Way, way back, in The Sloane Ranger Handbook, Ann Barr and Peter York observed that “Sloanes become hard of hearing if you’re wearing the wrong shoes. How,” he asked, “can one really understand a person wearing the wrong shoes?”

Your average punter decides they want a pair of brogues, and that the only further decision is black or brown. But that’s not enough for the serious shoe aficionado like myself. Full brogue, semi-brogue or quarter brogue? Longwing? Royal or Scottish? And when you say brown, is that tan, chestnut or oxblood?

And are we talking country or town?

You can see where this is heading, can’t you? Because your average punter also decides they want a bottle of wine, and the only further decision is red or white. But that’s not enough for the serious wine aficionade like myself. Beaujolais, Burgundy, or Bordeaux? Left Bank or Right? And when you say Bordeaux, is that Cru Bourgeois, Premier or Grand?

And are we talking lunch or dinner?

It’s a long road to knowledge. You start off learning the basic, physical requirements; how to put on a pair of shoes, how to remove a cork. Then you grow up a bit, and put away childish things, like velcro fastenings and screwcaps.

You learn there are both shoes and wines suitable for particular occasions. Vintage port and patent pumps are both ideally suited to formal dinners, but anachronistic elsewhere.

Indeed, there are shoes and wines whose very purpose is embedded in their names, like dessert wines, or trainers; do not bring them out unless accompanying dessert, or training.

The point, of course, is that the details are important. The details are everything. And it’s the people oblivious to the details who are most likely to be judged by them. Which is why the chap in the Mister Byrite shoes is likely to be cheerfully, obliviously wielding a bottle of Echo Falls.

There are those who follow what I can only describe as the CJ approach to both wine and shoe buying: function, and value. Fit is important, they’ll say – fit for the foot, fit for the food. That’s the basic requirement. But if it does the job, and doesn’t cost too much, then that’s all that matters.

Except that it’s not, and this month I had it all confirmed. It emerged that investment banks had failed interview candidates who wore brown shoes with their City suits. And I should think so, too.

And frankly, I think they should also have pointed them towards the drinks cabinet, and asked for a glass of claret, dismissing anyone who even lifts the bottle of Burgundy.

There will be those who say that there is a fundamental difference between shoes and wine which I am ignoring. That we need to have shoes, whereas we do not need to have wine. To which all I can say is, speak for yourself.


Thursday 8 September 2016

Nero D'Avola: Sainsbury's Again

This week's style icon: Bruce Chatwin

It had taken me three days to cross the white plains which lay at the end of the distant Carpathians. A drover carried me the last miles to the door of the old ducal palace. Rooks cawed incessantly and a dung fire sent up a wavering line of blue smoke.

'It is far from your land,' said the drover. 'Perhaps he will not be in.'

The Dukedom of Vrigişti has its origins in the thirteenth century, when the Crusaders annexed an area of land in the name of Honorius III, creating a sovereign principality which lasted three hundred years before being absorbed into the Ottoman Empire and reduced in status to a Dukedom. The eleventh Duke of Vrigişti, the man I hoped to visit, was sixty-five years old and had no heirs.

'Perhaps not,' I said.

The drover removed his hat at the palace gate. A kumquat seller joined us, pushing his two-wheeled barrow with the familiar, loping, gait of a Hutsul. A metal bell, shaped like a mendicant's bowl, hung beside a rusting crucifix. I rang it and an old woman, her face as lined as a dry river-bed, came to admit me.

The kumquat seller followed me into the courtyard. There, fig trees grew and two men sat in the shade, playing dominoes. The building was formed in the style of the old palace at Artukulu; its shutters were closed and faded. The air smelled of dust and smoke and figs. The woman led me up a worn flight of stairs to a piano nobile.

'He is tired,' she said. 'But he will see you.'

I found myself in a great, empty room, its cracked stone floor inlaid with Topaz. An elderly man was in the centre of the room, reclining on a velvet cushion. A bulbul began to call outside. The walls were lined with pier-glasses and Iznik tiles. At last, the man looked up at me.

'It is kind of you to come. I am very poor company, that you should come so far. Would you care for wine? We may drink it within the palace walls. Please, sit.'

I thanked him and sat, cross-legged, on the floor. He turned and produced two glasses and a bottle of red wine from within a jadeite box. A plate of figs was brought in by the old woman.

'Since the Communists, it has been difficult.' The Duke's voice was soft and musical. 'Winston Churchill told my father once in Tangier that they would leave, one day, but that when they left, nothing would remain.' He unscrewed the cap from the bottle. 'I can only offer you this. It is a wine from Italy. I remember being driven along the corniche to Ventimiglia, before the War. It is a Nero D'Avola.'

He told me that once, he left the palace to travel. His brother, to curry favour with the ruling elite, had stripped the palace of all its possessions, including a table which once belonged to the Princesse Eugénie and a Chinese sarcophagus from the Tang Dynasty. He gave them to the local Party Secretary. Torches burned through the night as the building was ransacked. On the Duke's return, the people of the village made him a bed of fig wood to sleep on. Later, some of the items were returned, including the jadeite box.

'They say this is the WInemakers' Selection. But who are the Winemakers? Once, I drank a wine called Taste the Difference. I could not taste the difference.'

Outside, the kumquat seller had joined the two men playing dominoes.

'Is there anyone else in the palace?' I asked. He said, no, there were only him and the old lady and the men playing dominoes. The palace had sixty-six rooms, some with shreds of damask still clinging to the walls, but most of the rooms were uninhabitable. The villagers came in to work, but their own lives were hard.

Later, I went to the village, where I found a room overlooking a grove of lemon trees. A dog scratched at a verbena bush. I read a book about Konstantin Melnikov. A storm was gathering and I went to play cards at the local inn.

I said, 'The Duke is very poor.'

One of the card players said, 'He is not a duke. He is a farmer. The Duke died two years ago. But he is a good man. When he dies, we will carry his body through the streets of the village and carve a fine headstone.'

The first drops of rain began to fall.


Thursday 1 September 2016

Port wine, Ottolenghi and kitchen pedantry

200ml of Port, said the recipe. So who am I to argue?

Yotam Ottolenghi is a chef known for the lengthy lists of ingredients in his recipes, often requiring miniscule quantities like an eighth of a teaspoon of relatively obscure herbs and spices. This assumes you either have a store cupboard from which you can pluck these pinches and pecks, or that you are going to invest in a whole jar of the ingredient, and hope that you use it again in the future.

But his recipe for Five-spice Pork Belly seemed perfectly feasible. We actually had some Chinese five-spice, along with the requisite garlic, maple syrup, sea salt and sunflower oil. Yes, of course I had 200ml of red wine. “And,” said Mrs K, “You’ve got some port in the cellar, haven’t you?”

Now, just hold on a second. Yes, there is some port in the cellar. There are five remaining bottles of my 33-year-old Vintage Port. They have travelled with me over a half of my life. They will be carefully removed, opened, strained, filtered and decanted on particularly special occasions. And I am not going to open a bottle just so that a little under a quarter of it can be tipped into a sauce.

Would it be stepping outside my jurisdiction to suggest that perhaps, with maple syrup providing a sweet stickiness, and red wine providing fermented grapes, the port is not strictly necessary?

Probably. If a recipe says it needs 200ml of port, then 200ml of port it obviously needs to have. 

There are those who say that recipes are just a guide, that cooking is all about improvisation. I am not of their number. I have seen quite enough incompetent improvisation at the Edinburgh Fringe, and I don’t want it anywhere near my kitchen.

I have also found that when people tell me I can use “alternatives”, my mind goes blank. The idea that you could "use your imagination" surely runs counter to the whole concept of a recipe.

(When Mrs K bought a blender, she said that you can put “anything” into smoothies – and then baulked when I imaginatively suggested sardines.)

But are there people who just happen to have a quarter of a bottle of port hanging around? Who keep port in their store cupboard? And are they the sort of modern, Guardian-reading people who cook Ottolenghi recipes?

There was naught else to do but suggest that we buy an entire bottle, just in order to add the requisite 200ml to the recipe.

It is hard for me to buy a bottle of wine, of any kind, without an eagerness to drink it. Even if it’s a gift, I use my own desire to consume it as a measure of whether it is worth buying. But there is no way I am going to drink a bottle of port in midsummer. This is for cooking.
It can therefore, I assume, be a pretty basic bottle of port.

(Unlike Mr Ottolenghi's nit-picking approach to herbs and spices, there is no indication of the type of port he recommends. Tawny? Aged Tawny? Colheita? LBV? Vintage? Funny, isn't it, how many chefs who would specify a type of potato or a nationality of olive ignore the specifics of wine…) 

The most basic bottle of port I could find is a Ruby Port. Not LBV, not even Fine Ruby. It’s what my father-in-law calls “Grocer’s Port”. And it cost £7, which to me is a ridiculously low price for a port, but a ridiculously high price for an ingredient.

Now, it needs to be said that the recipe was a massive success. Fabulous. That's thanks to Mr Ottolenghi’s recipe, Mrs K’s culinary skills, and my own legendarily helpful kitchen pedantry. (“That is not a slotted spoon; those are circular holes, not slots.”)

Soft, sticky, rich and sweet. That was the pork – but not the port.

Because I thought, in traditional manner, I would have some port with cheese afterwards. I was not sure this port merited a decanter. I was horrified to find that it barely merited a glass.

Far from the anticipated raisiny richness, it is shallow, bitter and nasty. It’s a red wine with 20% alcohol, whose closest resemblance to port is that it leaves your lips sticky. It is so far from the experience of what I consider proper port that it is like drinking champagne without bubbles.

So it is not something I’m going to return to as a drink; it will not even be dignified with a place in my cellar; it will have to join the herbs and spices in the kitchen store cupboard. And there it will remain, awaiting the second time in my life that I find a recipe requires port.