Thursday 27 October 2016

A pint of wine

Let us consider…quantity. Something wine drinkers rarely do. It’s as if people are embarrassed talking about, let alone measuring, the amount of this stuff they might actually consume. And so wine quantities are effectively disguised in the classy euphemisms of glass and bottle.

But Sam Allardyce, the England football manager, was recently caught in a sting operation by investigative journalists. And soon after the video of his conversation was released, someone pointed out that he appears to be drinking a pint of wine.

Now there may be a snobbish angle to this, the assumption that, whatever the drink it contained, someone from the West Midlands would be more comfortable with a pint glass in his hand. An imagined conversation which would have gone:

“I’ll have ‘pint.”
“Well, we’ve got a lovely bottle of Chassagne Montrachet we’ve just opened…”
“Right. I’ll have ‘pint.”

Some have said that it is clearly a glass of flat lager. Others that the consumption of a pint of wine provides some explanation for any injudicious comments one might make about one’s predecessor or one’s employers. After a pint of wine, people have suggested, anyone might mispronounce a complicated name like Rashford.

But let’s be honest. Which of us has not drunk a pint of wine at a sitting?

Perhaps not from a beerglass, indeed. But a 750ml bottle is a pint and a third. If you add in a glass of white before dinner, can any of us say that we have never drunk that much wine in an evening?

Imagine (raising the tone just a notch from Mr Allardyce) dinner with the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Given his potential to go off on one about the difference between pure and empirical knowledge, you might not have anticipated a fun evening round at the Kants’. And then you discover that at Immanuel’s dinner parties, “Before each guest was placed a pint bottle of red wine and a pint bottle of white”.

Phew. The Wine Society advises, in its Wedding and Party Planning Guide, that “The average guest will consume about one to two drinks per hour”. And Laithwaites, whose planners estimate a two-hour wedding meal, suggests you should “Allow two or three glasses of wine per guest ". 

But as lawyers say, time is of the essence here. Two hours might work for a wedding meal, circumscribed by speeches and the like, but the average dinner party surely sprawls over more than two hours. I’d feel a bit short-changed if I journeyed across town to arrive at seven thirty for eight, and was out of the door before the News at Ten.

And it sprawls because, inspired by wine, people talk.. As Kant himself wrote, “Wine induces merriness, boisterousness, wittiness and open-heartedness. Thus it is good for conversation, sociability, and virtue.” That’s the conviviality of wine, which is neither the communal roistering of beer, nor the solitary melancholy of whisky.

I’m guessing that the average dinner party lasts at least four hours. Which pushes that consumption level back up to nearer a bottle a head. A pint of wine.

So it’s actually in the manner of the measurement – or, indeed, the manners. We address the quantity of our wine discreetly, in glasses, and bottles. We do not pour it all out at once, and patiently and publicly work our way through it.

And we keep measurement in pints for beer and milk. As a consequence, a measure of a pint is now considered irredeemably basic, and ‘basic’ is the antithesis of wine. If Kant had provided a bottle each of red and white, we’d just think he was being very generous; by providing a pint of wine, it becomes crude.

Which can only be what I believe they call a philosophical distinction.


Thursday 20 October 2016

The Revenge Of Cluj-Napoca - Waitrose Romanian Pinot Noir

So Romania and I have recently been enjoying a fairly hands-off relationship, following the Cluj-Napoca failure and, to be honest, it's been preying on my mind. Romania, I tell myself in my Western liberal way, needs a helping hand, now more than ever, but what have I done to put cash into the country's pockets? Except for the fact that the guys who run the car cleaning place at the end of the road might be Romanians and I've certainly paid them, because, after all, they do a good job at a fair price.

Then, the answer to my prayer: Waitrose suddenly has a perfectly sensible-looking bottle on its shelves, containing a Romanian Pinot Noir, bottled under Waitrose's own brand. This is where mild bourgeois guilt conveniently meets equally mild nostalgia - that craving for the cheap Central European wines of my earlier adulthood - with the added bonus of a sub-£5 price tag. Strictly speaking, the stuff I've been looking for since the fall of Communism and the subsequent confusion and neglect among the old Iron Curtain wineries has been Hungarian - or Bulgarian, I can't tell the difference - that's the one with the real echoing resonance of nostalgia, but can I find any? So Romania it is.

And I have the perfect occasion on which to try it out: PK and his wife are over for lunch. Once we've dispatched his fancy 2009 La Tour St Bonnet - we're eating guinea fowl, by the way - it's out with my Transylvanian treat. Off comes the screwtop with a healthy snap, always a good sign, and I pour the Pinot Noir: which is a really startling colour, a kind of glittering fuschia, the colour of a Rodeo Drive convertible - and not good, not for a red wine. It also smells the way the school chemistry lab used to when the windows hadn't been opened for a bit. Mrs. K wisely won't drink it but she does take a confirmatory sniff, presumably for information to furnish the paramedics with when they come round to get us.

Taste-wise, it's not good, either. It's undrinkable, frighteningly so. No-one gets past an insect sip or two. Give it time I say - which is what I always say, knowing that neither time nor any other intercession I might think of will ever help this awful wine. We put it to one side. A day later? Still impossible to swallow. Two days? The same. If this is the best that Romania can do, then Romania is clearly not ready yet for primetime; but I don't think this is the best Romania, or anyone else, can do. Even my father-in-law could do better with his (now mercifully retired) home brew kit.

Anyway. Mrs K said that she wouldn't use it to cook with, but I know better and decide that only way I am going to get my sub-£5's worth is to get rid of it in a stew. Just pouring out the remainder of the bottle makes my eyes water and the stew is not great, although that may be as much to do with my cooking as anything. Certainly, it does not have a rich, dark, bibulous sauce; but on the other hand, no-one who eats it is physically sick. I sigh with relief and shame. Not for the first time, a nightmare wine is dealt with and life moves on.

But it does make you wonder what Waitrose's wine buyers thought they were doing when they ordered it in. Did they even try it first? Did they drink something else, only for the rascally wine producers to switch tankers on them? And this for an own brand, something they corporately identify as their choice. Absolutely baffling. I mean, this is a truly revolting wine, down there with the legendary Côtes du Rhône, but at least that was half the price. Then again, most of Waitrose's bargain wines are foul, only put on display to provide a contrast with the stuff they really want to sell, at around the £9+ mark. I know this, they know this; they also know that sheer inertia will keep morons like me coming back to their well-lit upscale shopping experience and that I will always fall prey to some filth they've acquired and need to get rid of, somewhere. 

And then, with a physical jolt, I remember: I've been here before, same stuff, same horrible experience, same utter senselessness, same futile waste of time and money. Oh, God. Lock me up, someone, before I do any real damage.


Thursday 13 October 2016

"We should stop and drink" – T.S. Eliot and Wine

Revisiting Burnt Norton, one of TS Eliot’s great, late poems, has led to a deeper consideration of the possible role of wine in his work. It was driven by a realisation that one particular passage, were it actually tracing Eliot’s search below stairs for a bottle of wine, might have read:

Footfalls echo in the cellar
Past the claret which she said we could not take
Towards the bottles we never opened.
Quick, said the wife, find them, find them,
Human kind cannot bear very much sobriety.

This has inspired a critical reassessment of TS Eliot’s work, and the appearances which wine might have made in his poetry.

In his earliest work, Eliot did not include references to wine. We do not, for example, find in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock that:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Montepulciano

The narrator of Portrait of a Lady drinks dark beer (“bock”), but his emotional distance from his hostess might have been emphasised had he declined an offer of wine:

Now that claret’s quite passé
She has a glass of rosé every day
And twists one in her fingers while she talks…
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.

By the time of The Waste Land, Eliot should have been able to incorporate references to wine  more confidently. At the conclusion of its typist episode, “She turns and looks a moment in the glass” – perhaps this may not be a mirror, as commentators assume, but a contemplative gaze into an empty wineglass? Indeed, the passage might have ended with the lines:

When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smooths her hair with automatic hand
And pours another glass of Cote de Beaune

(Perhaps inciting Ezra Pound, editing Eliot’s manuscript, to scribble in the margin, “Burgundy be damned”)

In later life, as Eliot became a significant figure in English society, he would surely have sought to put together an appropriate cellar. A cellar certainly features increasingly in his work. And he may have experienced problems in maintaining it. In The Hollow Men, he writes of “dried voices”, obviously bereft of wine; perhaps following an incident in which his stock was shattered, resulting in his reference to “broken glass/In our dry cellar”.

And when he later turned to drama, his anxiety about his wine collection continued. “We ask only to be reassured/About the noises in the cellar/And the Merlot that should not have been open”. (Published scripts of The Family Reunion substitute the word “window”.)

Could his late poetry, in which he wrestled with the concept of time, have incorporated his years of experience of vintages, of maturity and of wine’s development?  Further lines modified for the opening of Burnt Norton were famously first written for Murder In The Cathedral, but cut before its first performance. Of course, references to drinking would surely have been inappropriate for the character of a priest:

Wine present and wine past
Are both perhaps present in wine future,
And wine future contained in wine past.
That’s the thing with vintages.
What might have been, and what has been,
Point to one end, which is always present.
Unless we drink it.

This is a new way of reading TS Eliot, with which wine drinkers will surely empathise. For my own part, along with that early narrative voice,

I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark
Suddenly, his expression in a glass.

It is exciting to imagine that one of our greatest poets might also have experienced that moment of reflection in a full Riedel.


Thursday 6 October 2016

Coming Up: More Jefford - And Why The Label Is Everything

So last time I droned on about Andrew Jefford and his apparent change of heart concerning the best way to write tasting notes and the exciting new world of New Brutalist Wine Writing it conjured up. But dash my buttons if I don't come across another of his radical re-thinks - this time, giving up on the really high-end stuff, or, as he puts it: 'At some point over the last year, I realised something had changed in my relationship with wine. I didn't want the best any more.'

Of course, his idea of the best is some way north of my idea of the best, but his point is essentially twofold: that the market is overheated to a preposterous degree (cf footballers' transfer fees) leaving the very best wines beyond his means; and that, anyway, there's no real sense of adventure in reverentially drinking a wine which everyone knows to be fabulous - that life is more likely to be enhanced by finding something unexpectedly, less self-fancyingly, good, well away from the connoisseurs' circus and all that entails.

Since Sediment has been a tedious advocate of this kind of thinking for the last five years, I'd like to kid myself that at some stage Mr. Jefford stumbled upon one of our posts and as a consequence had his head all turned around, but I suspect he didn't. Still. If I were the kind of person who gets carried away with a hypothesis, I'd argue that we could be at an inflexion point in wine appreciation, the point at which the bottom drops out of the whole snobbish, pretension-ridden business and we can just get on and have a drink. Although that is implicitly crediting Mr. Jefford with more influence than even he may possess.

In other news, The Week In Wine has come up with this fantastic bottle of price-point cabernet sauvignon - something calling itself Le Réveil, which I got, I suppose, at Waitrose and which contained some wine sourced from a big metal container in France. What did it taste like? Muck, to be honest. What did you expect? But look at the label: when did you last see such a fantastic piece of design work on a bottle of filthy red wine? The letters of the words Le Réveil are actually embossed, so that they catch the light. The effect is so sumptuous, so fin-de-siècle, that even my wife, who hates wine, said That's a nice bottle. The thing gives pleasure outside and in - more outside than in, but it's definitely giving pleasure.

Not for the first time, a new criterion suggests itself by which to choose the next bottle: that magic moment at which the packaging of the drink is so much more highly-evolved than the drink itself that the drink becomes a blissful near-irrelevance. Doesn't work for everything, obviously - Coca-Cola springs to mind - but the idea is so intoxicatingly straightforward, I am convinced it cannot fail. Next move? I Invest in a dramatically handsome bottle of Coteaux des Baronnies, with a date (2013), a footnote announcing that it is in some way associated with the Cellier des Dauphins®, an Indication Geographique Protégée emblazoned on the front, a Cuvée Traditionelle picked out in gold along the bottom, and a cork to drive home the idea that this is a miraculously superfine wine. And on special offer at a whisker over £5.

It looks so fabulous - not as fabulous as Le Réveil, but fabulous enough - I don't even have to drink it. It's already given me so much satisfaction, just sitting there, this mug's eyeful, that I might never get round to drinking it. No, that's not going to happen, why would I even consider the idea, however Zen it might appear? But then again, for the first time in a long time, I'm excited by the thought of something to do with wine. So where do we go from here? Over to you, Jefford.