Thursday 23 February 2017

Let me tell you a story...

There are people coming for lunch. I’ve got my wines ready. And my stories.

You may have come across the idea of “brand storytelling”, the notion that a brand can engage with us through tales about its origins, or values, or what makes it distinctive. Because we all prefer something which has a story behind it.

There is even a horrible American adjective, “storied”, which is applied to brands who have had lots said about them, although it just sounds to me as if they have a lot of floors. I can’t wait to hear the many tales from a multi-storied car park.

I’ve got used now to retailers telling stories about their wines. The vineyards which are “next door to” some great name. The winemaker who is “son of” a legendary figure. As if, whether through geography or genealogy, good wine is simply a product of proximity.

My favourite is always the story about the obscure wine from the well-known winery. Obscure not because it’s a lesser wine, oh no – but because this is the fabulous wine which is usually kept back for friends and family. The one which is so good, they usually keep it for themselves. Like the way Martin Scorcese keeps his best films for his home cinema, rather than releasing them to the public.

Then there are legends like that of Casillero del Diablo, the winery which, to dissuade burglars, spread the story that their cellars were guarded by the devil. Well. I’ve read my Danté and my Milton, and I think that the Satanic horde have got bigger things to do than act as night watchmen.

Or there’s the varying tale behind the wine Est! Est!! Est!!! It’s said that a Bishop in the twelfth century, or possibly the eleventh, travelling to meet the Pope, or perhaps to attend a Coronation, sent a prelate, or it may have been a clerk, on ahead of him. This scout was to chalk the word “Est”, Latin for “It is”, on the door, or the wall, of the establishments serving the best wine en route. And the wine he found in Montefiascone was so good that he chalked up “Est! Est!! Est!!!”.

This story may, of course, be apocryphal. It may also be misleading, in that the quality of that wine is not generally regarded as being in the category of the triple-exclamation mark. Jancis Robinson has described it as "usually the dullest white wine with the strangest name in the world." Although I suppose that doesn’t really matter; if you tell your guests the story, and then they disagree with the verdict, you’ve got a fascinating little tasting thing going on, and you can lay the blame for your dull wine on the twelfth-century clerk. Or prelate.

But then there are personal stories. Not those concocted by brands, but those which arise because you’ve chosen the wines yourself. Like the stories I had ready for our guests.

So I was going to start with “wine with bubbles” as they first described it, from the oldest established Champagne house.  The brand’s own story involves a monk, yet again, and the development of glass bottles, yawn. But it was gifted to Mrs K as a leftover from a Famous Designer’s launch party, at a fabulously trendy location, and it’s the Champagne They Chose, which has got to be interesting. I mean, you’re interested in who, and where, and what was chosen, aren’t you?

And then we were to have the last bottle of a 2005 claret, now just at its peak, which I had brought back in December from a supermarket in Paris, encased in bubble wrap and socks. I found a 12-year-old claret for €16, while Mrs K was buying biscuits and chocolate and soup, which just shows why we both love French supermarkets.

No devils or monks or prelates, but stories about designers, and supermarkets, and travelling with wine, and socks… what more could you want?

Then CJ turns up. Usually, if he’s got a story, it’s one you don’t particularly want to hear, like “Do you know, this was the only bottle they had for less than £7?”

But this time, he appears waving a chilled bottle of something sparkling, and he says “Look, this is a combination of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, from South Africa.” And if there’s one thing better than a host with a wine with a story, it’s a guest with one. It means they know what it is they’re bringing; it’s not something they just grabbed off a shelf in a blind panic. Not something you’ll have to look up when they’ve gone, to see whether you should drink it, cook with it or give to a tombola. 

So against all the rules regarding gifts of wine, we drank it, and it got us talking. Bit bland, we felt, and whereas the blend seemed to have removed that biscuity quality of Champagne, it hadn’t added anything interesting enough back in return. But definitely more sophisticated than Prosecco. And it kicked things off very nicely indeed, thanks.

Sometimes, wine is there to fuel the story-telling. And sometimes, wine is the story.


Thursday 16 February 2017

So Very Cheap: Mme. Parmentier's Fitou

So the adventure of Christmas is well and truly behind us, but it's a Christmas that really does keep on giving, because we found a leftover cracker the other day and decided to pull it, since it was a Thursday, and what did I find inside apart from a hat and a joke about sprouts? An authentically impressive stopper-cum-pourer for my wine bottles, as seen in the picture.

Yes, it's mostly made out of plastic, just like the pocket comb or set of golf tees that normally flops out of an exploded cracker; but there is proper engineering, too. The hinged stopper is kept in place with a metal trunnion pin and is sealed with a neat rubber washer; the spout is not only effortlessly stylish and drip-free, it has a return tube positioned at the top to allow air to flow back into the bottle while the wine flows out; and there is a ribbed rubber collar to ensure a respectable fit in the neck of the bottle. I mean, this is not nothing. It looks like something off a saxophone. It could even have been made in Germany; although the crackers themselves came from our local branch of Robert Dyas, the hardware people, which I suppose tells you something about how we like to have fun.

So now I have a free wine pourer/preserver to add to the free Waiter's Friend which I pinched from a hotel in New York and I am starting to wonder if I can't capitalise further on the prodigality of Western culture and get my entire wine-drinking life onto a no-cost footing. After all, my elder son and his girlfriend use old jamjars to drink water out of when they're at home - partly out of frugality, partly because it's kind of a boho thing to do - so I suppose I could start toping out of jamjars and old gravy boats and recycled Brasso tins, and in fact - come to think of it - I started on that grim process a while back, so why not go the whole hog?

The free drink, though, the actual wine, that's always going to be a problem. No-one ever gives us anything for nothing at Sediment, or hardly ever, so in order to get my drink gratis, it would mean waiting for Christmas and Birthdays and asking very specifically and only for wine, every time those events rolled by. And since they both roll by in the month of December in my benighted case, the rest of the year is going to be almost morbidly dry unless I can find out how to make about sixty bottles last fifty-two weeks.

Actually, there's another problem. Both of my magical accessories, my Waiter's Friend and my superstopper, presuppose that I am the kind of person who a) drinks wine from a bottle with a cork that has to be pulled b) needs or wants to pour that wine in a grown-up fashion before closing it up primly with a hinged stopper. But we know that neither of these is true. I drink stuff from screw-top bottles, and if I splash it all over the table and the back of my own hand while pouring, then, frankly, that's what happens. In other words, even my freebies are more upmarket than me.

Which leaves me with today's half-drunk headache-maker, a wine which expresses my situation perfectly. It's a bottle of Mme. Parmentier's screwtop 2015 Fitou ('enjoyably swiggable' The Guardian said of the 2014) on offer at £5.99, and it's fine, perfectly manageable in its way, but am I really going to get all prissy about it and start treating it like an honoured guest or something that in any way mattered? Am I going to treat it with respect? Am I going to pour it out properly and stopper it? Even with something from a Christmas cracker?


Thursday 9 February 2017

"Angels and Devils, both the same"? – Casillero del Diablo v Camino del Angel

You could almost think that you’re seeing double.The bottle on the left is the biggest Chilean wine brand in the UK. In fact last year, it was the fourth largest wine brand in the UK overall. The one on the right is not.

There are certain aspects of bottle and label design which become generic, and immediately signal a particular type of wine. So the bottle with sloping shoulders says Burgundy, and Pinot Noir. There’s that Germanic style of lettering which says Chateauneuf du Pape. That narrow, tall, green bottle which says “picnic wine”. Or labels involving puns, which say “Put it back on the shelf, and walk away from the bottle…”

So is there now a “look”, a design, and a deployment of Spanish celestial personnel, which says, in a convenient visual shorthand, cheap Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon?

Casillero del Diablo is The Official Wine Partner of Manchester United. As far as I know, Man U have attracted no Official Champagne Partner, perhaps because they have lately had such little cause for celebration.

And possibly the best thing to have come out of this partnership is the commercial with which it was heralded. If you’ve seen it before, apologies, but it gets better with repeat viewings. Just because Eric Cantona made it as an actor, there was no reason to think that thespian talents might lurk elsewhere in Man U. And this 47-second commercial confirms the fact that, if all the world’s a stage, then some men are indeed merely players – football players, displaying all the acting ability of The Woodentops.

“Guys, we have a problem,” mutters Wayne Rooney, looking more than ever like Mr Potato Head. “The Boss says that a new devil is arriving.” It’s not quite clear why this represents a problem in Wayne’s World, except for the suggestion that any new arrival, diabolic or otherwise, might mark the end of his career.

“And what do they say about him?” asks Ryan Giggs. Perhaps he's preparing to offer advice on injunctions.

“They say…,” responds Rooney, who then pauses, either for dramatic effect or to recall his four remaining words, “He is a legend.” I have seen better acting skills in Nativity plays.

There is of course a “legend” – well, a story – behind the naming of Casillero del Diablo, “The Devil’s Cellar”. Once upon a time, the winery spread the rumour that their cellar was guarded by the devil, in order to scare off thieves. I tried something similar on Mrs K to protect my own wine, but she insisted that the malevolent noises in our cellar were coming from the tumble dryer.

As far as I’m aware, no-one has yet come out with similar twaddle to explain the new Camino del Angel, “The Angel’s Path”, but perhaps we could do it for them. Perhaps after several bottles of this wine, an old winemaker stumbling along the road had a vision of bright coloured lights and a voice which could only be that of a celestial angel. Until the voice said “Careful as you step into the ambulance, sir…”

There is, sadly, a far more prosaic story behind Camino del Angel. It is a new, Sainsbury wine; although only right down in the small print of the back label will you find that it is “distributed” by Sainsbury. Nowhere does it explain that Sainsbury actually own the name

And they don’t seem to be Official Partners of anyone, perhaps because there are no angels in football. (Except, it seems, for James Milner.)

I’m reminded of those brands you find in stores like Lidl or Aldi which sound sort of credible, until you realise that you’ve never seen them anywhere else. And of course, there is a whole angelic hierarchy waiting for competitors to play with should they decide to join in this Miltonic battle of the firmament, by bringing out brands like “Botellas del Seraphim” (© Sediment)

I leave it to others to consider whether the average shopper is so rushed, stupid or visually impaired that they might accidentally pick up one of these wines instead of the other. So let me help. Camino del Angel is the one which begins with an aggressive waft of alcoholic fumes, and provides an initial cherryish palate, before the flavour not so much develops as escapes, leaving you after ten opened minutes with a bland, oily Cabernet Sauvignon with a slap of alcohol.  Which costs just £5.75.

Get it wrong, and you might pay £7.50 for the Casillero del Diablo instead.


Thursday 2 February 2017

The Unending Nightmare: Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon And Iggy Pop. Or Schubert

So the world of wine-drinking is abuzz, apparently, with talk about the relationship between wine and music - or, more accurately, the relationship between the taste of wine and the environmental influences which affect it; among them, music. I thought we'd had enough of this kind of limelit nonsense, but no: here comes some guy from Oxford, getting The Guardian's otherwise perfectly sage Fiona Beckett all worked up about the beneficial symbiosis between music and drink ('It needs more of this sort of synaesthetic approach'); while over here is a rival from Herriot-Watt University, toiling away at the same thesis (Carmina Burana an intriguing part of the deal). And over here is PK, nudging me to give it a whirl. 'Go on,' he says, insinuatingly, 'you like all that stuff.'

This much I do know: wine affects your appreciation of music. When things are going well, it helps you dial out from your everyday preoccupations and nagging discomforts and allows you to concentrate on what's being played. There's even an argument that in order to submit entirely to some types of classical music or avant-garde jazz, you have to be a bit pissed. Wine as a music modifier, I get. Music as a wine modifier, on the other hand, sounds like the point at which we decide to make our lives so mindful and multifaceted that nothing, not even having a shave or cleaning the windows, cannot but be enhanced by the presence of a soundtrack. Which in turn sounds like the point at which music loses whatever cultural sovereignty it might have once enjoyed and becomes as meaningful as a paint chart, but what do I know?

Very well. It's time to test the hypothesis. The wine on offer? A concrete-floor Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, already open for three days, mainly on account of the fact that day one has to go by while the stuff blows off gases and poison vapours, while day two I forget about its existence, leaving it here on day three, subdued but still rancid. Just taking the cap off fills the room with the smell of a busy motorway, but we are where we are, and this is the wine I intend to modify.

I take a sip of the stuff in what passes for silence in this house. Some caramel moments, followed by a long racking cough of alcohol and carpet underlay. I call up my virtual jukebox - seven thousand individual tracks to chose from, covering the waterfront from Thomas Tallis to Tame Impala, yes, that's how charmingly catholic I am in my tastes - and invite it to randomise me a track. Turns out it's Blues With A Feeling by the fabulous Little Walter. Another sip of the booze. Well, yes, the demonic potency of Little Walter's lament about women and loneliness does sort of chime with the Cabernet Sauvignon, but does it make the experience richer or just noisier? I await the next track.

Which turns out to be Herbie Hancock's Cantaloupe Island, a super-likeable piece of Easy Jazz, and you'd think that this really ought to make my wine reconsider its position, that this would be the great ameliorator, but no. It just makes me wish I was drinking something mellower and more persuasive, something that tastes a bit like Herbie Hancock, in fact.

Getting desperate, I elect to play a snatch of Schubert: the second movement of his Piano Sonata in D Major, D 850, the Gasteiner. Surely we can get somewhere with this dignified, limpid, yet playful bonne bouche from the Late Classical period? Kind of yes, kind of no. A glass of 13.5% rough red wine on an empty stomach has certainly given me the perspective with which to stop, settle myself and contemplate the timeless verities of Franz Schubert and wonder what he might have gone on to write if he hadn't died at the age of thirty-one. But there's no getting away from the fact that the wine is every bit as lousy as it was; the only good news being that I'm getting used to it, now.

Last chance? Dirt, from Iggy Pop and the Stooges. Actually, I think we have something, here: a nihilistic, junk-fuelled, bug-eyed, self-loathing, doom-filled, morbidly hedonistic rock classic from the powerfully toxic early Seventies. I've been dirt, groans Iggy, while The Stooges labour vengefully away in an echoing meat safe, and I don't care. In the context of Dirt, this Chilean embalming fluid positively sings. But, seriously, does this count as an achievement?