Thursday 24 November 2016

Christmas: claret, crackers and candles – Roc de Lussac

Christmas is coming, in case you hadn’t noticed, and the weight of tradition weighs heavily upon the wine selection. We have just one day a year in which we can relive Dickensian England, by eating old-fashioned food, going a-wassailing, and sending the children up the chimney.

Inevitably, the same desire to step back into the past must apply to our choice of wine.  Don’t tell me it’s all about taste, because even if it tastes fabulous, when Mum, Gran and Auntie Janet are all coming to Christmas dinner you’re hardly likely to put out a bottle of Sexy Wine Bomb. Having a wine which looks suitably old and grand is as key to the Christmas table as candles and crackers. Even if you can’t actually afford it.

But that’s where Messrs Sainsbury have come to help, with this magnificent-looking bottle of wine, retailing for the princely sum of just £7. That’s from its formerly ducal price of £9.

I mean, just look at that label. The generations of winemaking encapsulated in that traditional typeface. The touches of gilt. The crest, with its crown and lions regardant. This is clearly one classy product, with no pictures of falling leaves or bare footprints. Surely the kind of thing one could put proudly upon one’s dining table to project an image of history and tradition.

No picture of the chateau, mind you. Fair enough, there are several grands crus which don’t depict their chateau. But there’s no actual mention of a chateau here, either. Or, for that matter, of a grand cru. Still, they do proudly declare on line two of the label, which should be enough for most Sainsbury shoppers to pick it up with confidence, that Roc de Lussac is a marque deposée. Or ‘trademark’.

And it’s a Grand Vin de Bordeaux! A Grand Vin! That’ll impress the Christmas crowd. Well, those who don’t know that it carries no actual classification weight whatsoever, and is a non-specific suggestion of quality, rather like a pint of best, Tesco Finest or Greatest Hits.

Saint-Emilion, though, eh? Everyone’s heard of Saint-Emilion, even CJ. Unfortunately, this is Lussac Saint-Emilion, which is five or six miles from Saint-Emilion itself. Like visiting Abingdon and then saying you’ve been to Oxford.

But at least it’s recommended. And a recommendation of such significance that it’s actually printed on the label. Like printing a good review on a book jacket. Recommandé par Damien Dupont, no less.

Sorry? Who?

You know, Damien Dupont. Chef Sommelier France. What, the chief sommelier of the entire country? Head of all sommeliers in France?

This is hard to verify, as my trusty friend Google seems unable to find Damien Dupont, in his prestigious position as Chef Sommelier France, among the various project managers and trainee psychotherapists who share his name. Perhaps he is a chef sommelier, in a restaurant somewhere in France, a sort of rural wine waiter. In fact the only other wine reference I can find to Damien Dupont is on the label recommending another Bordeaux wine, with the remarkably similar name of Roc de Chevaliers, from the remarkably similarly named producer, Producta Vignobles.

(In fact, Producta Vignobles market eight wines with Roc in their title. “The name ‘roc’” they explain on their corporate website, “gives an impression of solidity, balance and heritage.” Hope you got that impression too.)

I have to say that my own judgment differs from that of Damien Dupont. Considerably. After a brief initial burst, the bouquet of this wine becomes thin and woody, rather like the cardboard from a new shirt. On the palate there’s a marked absence of any of the flavour you might associate with wine, such as fruit, leaving only a nasty bitter taste more like chewing old citrus pith. And finally a belt of acid and alcohol as if the product is better suited to some kind of vehicle maintenance.

Look, you can listen to Damien Dupont, or listen to me. I can recommend this too, along with other festive non-consumables like crackers and candles, as something that would grace any Christmas dinner table. Just as long as you don’t drink it.


Thursday 17 November 2016

Inycon Nero d'Avola, Frappato + Braun Blender = 75% Success, Claims London Man

So everyone's talking about hyper-decanting these days: this guy, for instance; or this snippet in The Independent. And some others. What is hyper-decanting, if you didn't already know? 'Thanks to this genius 30-second hack,' claims The Indie, 'you can now turn your cheap plonk into seriously fine wine. If you’re a vino lover who can’t necessarily afford the good stuff - or you just can’t stand parting with your cash - at some point you’ve probably had to ask yourself whether that vintage bottle is really worth it. But now you don’t have to. Instead, put your bargain bottle in the blender. Seriously.'

Well, I know I'm a vino lover who can't necessarily or even sporadically afford the good stuff, so this is pushing at an open door. And the concept is so easy to grasp: you take your cheap muck and blitz it for five to ten seconds in a kitchen blender; at the end of which you have something which tastes like mid-range muck. Perfection!

What next? I almost literally run out of the house in order to acquire a bottle of one of Waitrose's very worst red wines, their Inycon Nero d'Avola/Frappato mash-up, which I've mistakenly drunk before and know to be horrible. The mere thought of inflicting damage on this stuff is quite bracing enough, but if I can get a drink out of it at the end, then this really will have been a good day. Back the awful bottle comes and I set up my tasting: one glass of untouched Inycon, left to settle for a minute or so; one glass of Inycon, blitzed for five seconds in a Braun blender which I think we last used to make pancake batter, but which I concientiously wipe out with a kitchen spongecloth; one glass of Inycon blitzed with a hand blender in a jug for five seconds, this hand blender normally a thing for making soups but clean enough to the naked, credulous, eye.

The result?

Straight Inycon: some cabbage-water in the nose, followed by a sensation of worn felt under the tongue and a slight irritation in the cheeks. Finally a coda of spent safety matches. About par for the course with this particular wine: no real gratification at all.

Inycon in the blender: no nose to speak of, but a much more integrated effect on the palate, with something like raspberry going on plus a bit of acidity and a whoof of cardboard to finish. Not bad, in other words; also a terrific process to watch, with a welter of inky red juice in the blender jug, subsiding to a heaving scarlet foam. Real splatter-movie visuals and well worth the effort of finding the blender in the first place, buried as it was behind an archipelago of tiny jamjars and a salad spinner.

Inycon done over with the hand blender: a touch of stale shirt in the nose, a bigger delivery of fruit thereafter, cardboard and nuts in the finish, actually a more impactful experience than the Inycon blizted in the standup blender. Which I take to be a good thing, if an oversized fruity blast is what you want. What I don't understand, though, is why the hand blender experience should be a discernible improvement over that of the standup blender - until it occurs to me that the spongecloth I wiped out the blender jug with had previously been steeped in Flash kitchen cleaner (with bleach), enough, maybe, to denature the end product. Although, let's face it, if Inycon Nero d'Avola/Frappato can withstand an assault by both bleach and blender, it's less a wine and more of a DIY product; and I think there could be some useful crossover synergy there.

Would I go through this absurd ritual again? You know, if the blender wasn't stuck in the back of the cupboard I think I might. I can see a routine developing, in which the crack of the screwtop is more often than not followed by the roar of the blender and the steady glug of the foul beverage being funelled back into the bottle. Clearly, at no point is it transformed from bargain to vintage, but that's all right. People who operate at my level of delusional wretchedness can't afford to be picky about these things, and if this is where wine meets slashing, spinning blades and comes out ahead, then perhaps 2016 will not end as the complete disaster it has been so far.


Thursday 10 November 2016

Is the wine for drinking, or throwing?

Some may remember that title as the caption to a cartoon by Marc. It followed perhaps the most famous wine-throwing incident in modern English society, when Marc's wife, the newsreader Anna Ford, threw a glassful of wine over the Tory MP Jonathan Aitken.

Since then, wine-throwing seems to have become a regular occurrence on reality dramas and soap operas, much more so than in real life. Although to be fair, so has murder.

Part of the reason why wine-throwing is such a shocking act is that it is clearly taking place in a civilised situation – because otherwise you wouldn’t be drinking wine. It’s the sort of social scenario in which every word, every handshake, every disposal of an olive stone is governed by convention. And here you are, behaving in extremity, the very thing social etiquette is designed to stifle.

It’s not brutally animalistic, like throwing a punch, but it’s a very public statement that someone has pushed you beyond the rules which govern social behaviour. And it’s at close range, both physically and socially; after all, you must be standing virtually toe to toe. You are, for that moment at least, in the same intimate space.

But is it instinctive? Surely not. Throwing a glass of wine at someone is a calculated act, not a spur of the moment thing at all. Otherwise party guests would simply chuck whatever was at hand, and be tossing canapés at each other. And I find no record of anyone suffering a faceful of cocktail sausage.

There’s a fine screen history of drink-throwing, going all the way from a 1914 silent short called Wages of Sin to an episode of Girls. But it depicts a completely random collection of drinks and cocktails, and in real life, when it comes to the mechanics of throwing a drink, wine is ideal. The base of a wineglass fits snugly below your fist, so there is no danger of throwing the glass itself. A straight glass, whether pint or highball, can easily slip out of your hand, causing injury to more than just someone’s reputation.

Wine is also a litter-free drink. You really only want to be throwing liquid, not tossing ice-cubes, paper umbrellas and plastic stirrers into someone’s eye. Please, no olives on toothpicks; if you want to settle an argument with pointy sticks, take up fencing.

And wine is relatively expensive. If you simply wanted to throw liquid over someone, economic considerations would surely suggest water. Not just the cost of the drink itself – and you may well need another one to recover afterwards – but of any cleaning bills you might receive later, from victim, curtain-owning host, or surrounding partygoers suffering collateral damage.

But all this adds to the element of sacrifice. You have this civilised, delicious and expensive liquid in your hand, and yet you are willing to throw it away. You are clearly very, very upset.

Red or white? Well, there’s an increased shock from a chilled white, as opposed to a blood-temperature red. But weigh that against the longevity of the event, the unmistakable blazon of red wine which then has to be removed, the victim’s walk of visible shame to a bathroom to clean up. 

While you turn on your heel, and walk away. Your point has been made. You do not wait for them to chuck something back, which would reduce the whole event to the comic value of a food fight. You simply leave, your point emphatically and publicly made.

In drama, wine-throwing has been reduced to the status of a minor tantrum; but in real life, it remains rare and memorable. Anna Ford was interviewed on Desert Island Discs in 2012, almost thirty years after the event, and host Kirsty Young still asked about the incident in which (no doubt concerned about m’learned colleagues listening in) she euphemistically suggested that wine “came into contact with” the Tory MP. Ms Ford not only remained unrepentant, but said that “quite a lot” of people had congratulated her over the years.

”Because he had taken over TVam, and I was a founding member of that company, and I was fired summarily after coming off air having not been paid by the company for two years… So I saw him at a party several months later, and he came towards me, and I had my wineglass filled up, and I walked over, and threw it at him, because that’s how I was feeling. And I don’t regret it at all.”

So just remember, that glass of wine may be for throwing, rather than drinking. And my advice to cads, bounders and blackguards in this party season? Keep yourself out of arm’s way.


Thursday 3 November 2016

Xmas Reading: Waitrose v. IKEA v. Empire of Booze

So now, just to add to my habitual and highly personal sense of grievance, I have the Waitrose Christmas wine catalogue, which addresses itself to some fantastical speculative human being, a person actually 'Looking forward to sharing great company, great food and drink' over the holiday period. Everything about this beautifully-produced, 122-page graveyard of irony is excruciating: from the first picture of Phillip Schofield in a sweater (two more to come, ladies!) to the news that for at least one writer 'My boyfriend and I start Christmas Day, still in our pyjamas', to the recommendation that you chuck £4.49 at a 300ml bottle of AquaRiva Organic Agave Syrup in order to make yourself an AquaRiva Tequila Ding Dong, to the crazed assertion that 'With a price ceiling of £30, Champagne is well in range.'

Is it worse than the IKEA catalogue, the current heavyweight champion of vacuity? Of course not. The 2017 IKEA catalogue is a masterclass in denatured language, insistently mechanical in its upbeat formulations, everything it describes purged of the realities of human experience. 'Being together is what we care about'; 'Eric really embodies the essence of a digital nomad'; 'Adding a nursery in your bedroom doesn't have to mean giving up your meticulous wardrobes'. I could go on. Waitrose is bad, but IKEA has a genius for meaningless feelgood pap that takes it out of this world and into some other realm entirely. I sometimes read extracts out loud to my wife, just to annoy her.

Actually, it's the combination of supersmiley prose and Waitrose price policy that really sets me off. After all, I have had dealings with some of the wines it promotes: the crummy Canaletto Montepulciano d'Abruzzo ('an area known for its rich, robust reds') at £7.99; Les Dauphins Côtes du Rhône Villages (apparently 'generously perfumed' but also routinely indifferent in actual taste) for £8.99; Vasse Felix Cabernet Merlot, which I was trying only the other day, a hairy little bastard, although Waitrose cries up its 'great depth of colour', at £12.99; Cuvée Royale Crémant de Limoux ('wax and honeysuckle'), which, to be honest, I quite like, is up there, but at £11.99. All these wines are overpriced by approximately two quid a bottle, even though the rubric advises you (assuming you've got people coming round and you're not spending Christmas alone in front of the microwave) to 'go for mid-price wines that offer both quality and value'. This, accompanied by a picture of a Les Dauphins CDR at an almost satirical £11.99 a bottle. 'All the wines are terrific value,' says Schofield, apparently quite unflustered by the idea that nothing in this terrible magazine is worth anything like the price demanded.

To get the world of Waitrose out of my head, I look for something altogether chewier and more involving: and find it in Henry Jeffreys' just-out Empire Of Booze (Unbound Books). This is an ebulliently-written, fact-stuffed account of the relationship between the British and the world of drinks they consume - and have consumed - ranging across the centuries from Roman times to the present day. Brandy, port, claret, champagne, beer, gin, whisky, marsala, rum - all bear the mark of some kind of British intervention. Empire Of Booze unpacks their stories, bringing in such heroes as Sir Kenelm Digby, George Orwell, Arnaud de Pontac, Captain Bill McCoy, Jean-Antoine Chaptal and Samuel Johnson; while reminding us at the same time of the Blucher shoe and John Mytton's bear. There is drunkness and poverty. There is imposture, crookedness and fine wine. There is some killing. There is, as far as I can tell, no mention of Phillip Schofield's idea of what makes a perfect Christmas. On that basis alone, it would be worth a plug.