Thursday 30 March 2017

Tesco's Worst and Best: Spanish, Italian and Something Else

So I've just paid a load of money into the bank and am feeling dangerously flush. It occurs to me for about the third time in my life that instead of celebrating by going out and buying a dozen pairs of socks or a second-hand external hard drive - something useful, in other words - I could treat myself to a bottle of posh wine. That's what PK would do, after all, and what doesn't he know about lifestyle?

But even as I weigh up the possibilities (nice French red, maybe a decent Chianti for once, or one of those flash New Zealand whites) a friend emails me with the news that Tesco are knocking out own-brand wines for £3.50 a bottle and I should get down there before they all disappear. Not just any friend, but the maniac behind the tanker wine idea and, more recently, Sediment:The Sitcom, so I know it's for real. As he also notes, £3.50 is cheaper per litre than roof sealant, Brasso and Mr Muscle, as well as being a mere 51p short of the classic 1980's price point of £2.99.

Which is when I realise that not only has Tesco got some cheap muck in, but, in an incredible piece of synchronicity, my Brother-in-Law is actually in the process of doing his annual booze run to Calais, in the course of which he has promised to get me a couple of bottles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on offer at £2.99 a bottle. This is one of those moments when you feel the hand of Fate resting on your shoulder, a moment in which you say to yourself, This is my Destiny, like Michelangelo, or whoever, an understanding that this is the path mapped out for you and that you must take it or die. Or take it and die. Either way, you cannot deny your true calling. It is a big moment; and I discard at once any ideas of going upscale.

Instead I get down to the nearest big Tesco and scarf up a bottle of Tesco Spanish Red, a Tesco Italian Red and a Tesco generic Chardonnay, all at £3.50 a go. Actually, there are a couple of Lambruscos at £2.50 a bottle, but there's something clearly very wrong with a beverage that low on the evolutionary scale - even I can see that - so I give them a wide berth and head purposefully for home. Given that the duty + VAT on a bottle of wine at this end of the range is about £3, this leaves 50p for the producer/bottler, as well as Tesco's mark-up - assuming they are selling this stuff at a profit and not just getting rid of a terrible purchasing decision as fast as they can - which is enough to give me pause for thought at a roundabout; but, no, I've been here before, I can cope.

Half an hour later I find myself at the kitchen table with a ham and cheese sandwich and the Spanish Red, something of stand-off developing. Turns out the red comes in at 11% and is a Product of Spain, not even produce, a distinction I find troubling, but I take a deep breath and get stuck in. Bleeding gums raspberry colour, zero nose, followed by grapefruit, insoles, old flower water, some sulphur and a brief up yours of acidity. Perhaps better once I've left it overnight, I reflect. At any rate, I have three cheap bottles of disappointing wine to get through, rather than one equally but differently disappointing bottle for a tenner; so things are about where I expected them to be, and for a properly stoical wine drinker that's good.

More than that, though: also open (and now well into its third sullen day) is a bottle, by way of comparison, of Argentinian Beefsteak Club Malbec which I bought on offer from Waitrose but which has a full retail price of £8.79 - two and a half times the Tesco stuff. This Malbec is rank, sweaty, rebarbative, nothing appealing about it, not even the label, which bafflingly declares Beef & Liberty in stencil-effect red uppercase - a Nigel Farage kind of rubric which only makes things worse. But at the same time it consoles me: it is lousy and overpriced; while the Tesco is lousy and the right price, by virtue of which it becomes no longer lousy, merely adequate. And this is all fine. The spring sunshine has come out, I didn't crash the car on the way to or from the supermarket, the outcome of my trip is almost exactly as I anticipated it, my game remains firmly unraised. In these troubled times, I call that a result.


Thursday 23 March 2017

Everyday China – Changyu Noble Dragon

China is not well known for its wine – which, of course, means nothing. Just because something’s not well known doesn’t mean there isn’t someone who knows it well. Don’t even try and dismiss the wines of an oenologically-challenged country – Greenland, say, or Bangla Desh. Because there’s always some smart-arse pops up, saying “How dare you dismiss their wines!

“Obviously you haven’t tried tried Hiffen-Liffen, that rare blend of Triffen and Whiffen, let alone the extraordinary Mujid-Pujid or the languid Mesut Ozil.

“You really are displaying your ignorance.  Presumably you’ve never even been there! Do you just buy your wines from the supermarket?” Well, largely, yes.

But fortunately, a supermarket is now allowing me to satisfy this particular smidgen of curiosity – because here is Changyu’s Noble Dragon, China’s mass-market red wine, being sold in Sainsbury’s.

Immediately, a bottle of Noble Dragon presents some talking points. That irritating flange/lip/thing at the neck of the bottle, which means that some corkscrews won’t work on it. An odd little plastic imitation of a wax seal, stuck onto the top of the cork, which doesn’t actually seal anything. And pictograms everywhere, which for all I know might be either pairing recommendations, or hazardous liquid warnings.

But at the same time it’s extraordinary how they’ve picked up all the clichés of traditional European wine labelling. There’s the drypoint-like image of the “chateau” in Yantai. There’s the use of Germanic and script typefaces. There’s the reassurances of heritage (‘Since 1892…”) and quality. “Eighty years of quality assurance” – sounds like the Prudential.

There’s a little map of China on the back label, because, of course, we should know exactly where in China it comes from, in case we expected something from a neighbouring appellation.

And could it be deliberate, to reinforce the distance, the otherness of this wine, that, given the wealth and resources of the company, the English on the back label is surprisingly poor? “It is round and smooth in mouth, acting elegantly as a full bodied wine.”

It has, as they used to say of actor Karl Malden, quite a nose.  It reminds me of those mornings after, when one had to face the fragrance of a full ashtray. Then there is some initial cherryish action going on, but it’s quite shallow in flavour. Finally there’s a very dry finish, followed by quite a bitter aftertaste.

This is the biggest-selling wine in the world; in 2015, it sold 450 million bottles, more than the entire output of Rioja. Which, frankly, I would prefer to possess.

This could be a cheap wine from anywhere, really, although a cheap wine from anywhere would give you more change out of a tenner. Noble Dragon gives you none. Which means its curiosity value is about £4.01, the amount you’re paying on top of a similar cheap Chilean Cabernet.

Given the success rate of supermarkets at selecting wines from anywhere else, there is no reason to assume this is representative of the quality Chinese wine can achieve. But at least my curiosity has been resolved. Mind that dead cat.


Thursday 16 March 2017

Great Wine Moments In Movie History IX: Topsy-Turvy (1999)

As a rule, I find most of Mike Leigh's films completely unwatchable - his Happy-Go-Lucky of 2008 being about as bad as a film can get when it comes to tin-eared dialogue, lethargy-inducing mise en scène and dimwit characterization - and yet he has, in some kind of illustration of a basic human law, managed to produce a couple of really, really good movies - both period pieces: the authentically tragic Vera Drake (2004); and the authentically dazzling Topsy-Turvy - the story of how Gilbert and Sullivan got their groove back with The Mikado. And yes, in Topsy-Turvy, there is wine.

More accurately, drink punctuates the movie: a quiet index of the characters' situations and expectations, as meaningful as the clothes they wear and the expressions on their faces. Which means that when, about fifty minutes in, we observe the actress Leonara Braham (unflinchingly played by Shirley Henderson) slumped in her dressing-room, filling a wine-glass brimful of neat bourbon and staring abstractedly into its depths, we know not just that something is wrong, but that it is terribly wrong.

After all, Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) has been seen embracing the virtues of champagne (in a Parisian brothel); and some kind of high-end Burgundy, from the look of it, in a supersmart restaurant, where he inks his share in the new Savoy Hotel being built by D'Oyly Carte. His drink is a mark of licentiousness or high prosperity - in contrast with the stuff that W. S. Gilbert goes for. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent on pure top form) is prickly, diligent, obsessed with getting the small things right, keen not to waste money; tea and coffee are therefore his motifs, their sobriety only lessened when Sullivan - in one scene - plies him with a sugar-cube. Oh, and to round out the drinks selection, three of the younger male leads get stuck into some Guinness and oysters about half-way through the film; with hilarious consequences.

All of which is framed so thoughtfully, in such measured filmic terms, with such grave opulence, that it doesn't take much to disturb the surface richness. George Grossmith shooting up in his dressing-room is about the most shocking image; the actors' strike is almost as arresting, although for rather different reasons; Leonara Braham getting loaded and maudlin is another kind of backstage disruption, much bigger in impact than it has any right to be. As it happens, Miss Braham was in real life both a drunk and the mother of a clandestine child, even though her position in the company depended on her way with ingenue soprano roles. 'When I meet a gentleman, he invites me to supper,' she murmurs on-screen through her cigarette smoke, 'I mention my little secret - and then he's off, quick smart.' Her son, her 'Precious little bundle', is a tragedy as well as a justification for living - a situation which mirrors the bleak inability of the established, well-to-do Gilberts to conceive a child; as well as Sullivan's tendency to get his mistress pregnant before having the unborn child discreetly got rid of.

All of which is contained in the way Shirley Henderson aims her moue at the rim of her glassful of hard liquor, in the way she holds the glass close to her, tenderly resting it on her bodice, her fondling of the glass binding ideas of drink and maternal affection in one image. Which in turn is put into context by all the other visual references to cups, glasses, beakers and carafes littering the frame; which in their turn are all parts of the complex, crowded, visual texture of the film, whose genius is to reveal how all this density and complexity can be shaped into something as apparently air-light and uniform as The Mikado - or, if you want to go down that road, as coherent and satisfying as Topsy-Turvy itself. The glass is nothing, just a tiny part of the pattern, but on this occasion you've got to hand it to Mike Leigh: he really knows how to fill a picture with meaning.


Thursday 9 March 2017

Preserved for posterity – Jancis v Sediment

The University of California has acquired the archive of Jancis Robinson; forty years of wine tasting notes, her travel notebooks, notes on Chateau Latour, invitations from the Queen, personal correspondence and published articles. A feature in the San Francisco Chronicle explained the acquisition  by saying that “Robinson invented ways to be a wine writer that had never existed before”,

This is clearly also true of Sediment, which similarly invented ways of being a wine writer which had never existed before, viz. while knowing little to nothing about wine.

So perhaps there is some former Poly, or one of the poorly supported council libraries, which would be interested in acquiring the Sediment archive?

At the heart of the Sediment archive is a treasure trove of crumpled supermarket receipts. These provide a fascinating glimpse into the authors’ wine-buying habits; they document the seesawing prices of discounted supermarket wines, and provide historians with precise documentation of the dates of “25% off six bottles” offers.

The receipts record the pitifully low sums which the authors regularly spent on their wines, illustrated further by a marked-up list from Majestic, a booklet from Lidl and some sort of leaflet which came through the door from Waitrose.

The archive pinpoints increasingly hard-to-find retailers such as Threshers, Nicolas and Oddbins, and tracks the relentless rise of CJ’s pricepoint from £5 to the heady heights of £6.99, while the sorry state of wine deliveries is recorded by a collection of “While you were out…” cards.

There are, sadly, no notes on Chateau Latour; if there were, they would probably be “Can’t afford it” from PK and, from CJ, “What?” But then, the Jancis Robinson archive probably lacks notes on Sainsbury’s Basic, “reminiscent of alcohol and wet carpet, like the aftermath of a student party”. 

And here are all of the other original Sediment tasting notes, in handwriting whose deteriorating legibility provides confirmation that the authors didn’t just consider wines; they consumed them.

There are fascinating similarities; Jancis’s notes on Latour employ the descriptive term “open”, which Sediment also use, having decided it was helpful to “open” most of their wines.

One can see in her notes on Latour comparisons like “red fruits”, “cheese” and “violets”. Sediment’s points of comparison reflect more of a quintessential Englishness, referring to such evocative national products as Airwick, Flash and Copydex, in notes such as “acrid, nasal – like crushed insects in Brasso”.

Sediment’s invitation from the Queen sadly seems to have gone astray. However, there is one from the Prime Minister, a moment at which PK believed he would achieve new status in wine drinking, only to be offered a glass of Campo Viejo. 

And, perhaps distinguishing itself from the Jancis archive yet again, the Sediment archive does contain an invitation from ASDA, to a tasting event at which CJ “sat bathed in mute and baffled dread.” Which could explain the absence from the archive of any other invitation from any other supermarket. 

Here finally is the original manuscript for the Sediment book. It makes fascinating reading, with particular reference to the amendments required by lawyers, including exchanges over the potentially libellous use of words such as “emetic”. The archive allows scholars to identify the retailers that the authors were not allowed to describe as “dreary” and “charmless”, and the producer whose wine could not be described as “rust remover”.

What will students find, asked the San Francisco Chronicle, when they encounter the Jancis documents? “I think it will be an interesting snapshot into where wine was,” Robinson says.

Sediment already know where wine was – it was in the bottle, then it was in the glass, then it was, somewhat briskly, gone –  but their archive offers an alternative snapshot of everyday wine drinking, and a record of its cost which will be of particular interest to their wives.


Thursday 2 March 2017

Trump Wine: Cabernet Sauvignon and Fortified Chardonnay

So now seems like as good a time as any to contemplate Donald Trump's impact on the world of wine. And what an impact it's been! As he himself gets someone else to put it in The Art Of The Deal, 'I like thinking big. I always have.' And, 'From the very start, size was a top priority.' And, 'It's larger than life.' And, 'Listen to your gut.' If I ever wanted a teetotal megalomaniac casino developer to blend my grapes, than Donald J. Trump would be the man: it's all about quantity and bowels.

Yes, we have a potential situation with Trump's teetotalism (his older brother, Freddy, died an alcoholic which kind of accounts for it) but a mere complete lack of familiarity with something is oviously no bar to success in that chosen sphere. So Trump wines? Or vodka, even? Why ever not?

Well, not the vodka, obviously, as that's gone the way of Trump University, Trump Magazine, Trump Institute, Trump Airlines, Trump Steak, Trump: The Game, Trump natrual spring water, Tour de Trump, Trump on the Ocean, and Trump Network. Trump Vodka ('Awful,' according to one critic) was axed from most markets in 2011, despite being offered in a gold Cubist bottle with a vast T on the front. Nevertheless, the wine persists, with a smart website telling you all about the sprawling estate in Virginia where they make the Trump range, plus a list of its numerous awards, plus a calendar of upscale events like the Mother's Day Brunch and the Bastille Day Vine and Dine.

And there's an online shop, which sets my heart pounding at the thought that I might be able to acquire some of this stuff and thereby get that tiny bit closer to the current leader of the free world. With tragic inevitability, however, you can only get it shipped within the States, and not all of them. Why not Kansas, Delaware, West Virginia or Arizona? What have they done to be deprived of the Trump Winery's unique Fortified Chardonnay, known as Cru? Made by 'Blending Chardonnay juice with grape brandy', this 'Fortified wine is then aged for over a year in American bourbon barrels', but if you're stuck in Wilmington or Bisbee, you have nothing to look forward to.

It's even worse here in the UK, where I am reduced to speculating on whether or not I could persuade my New York friends to blag a couple of bottles and bring them over the next time they're here. I don't know: could I be bothered to drag a couple of Nyetimbers over to them? No, of course not. Which leaves me, for now, supplicating the internet for other people's reviews of Trump's output and trying to get a sense of it that way.

Naturally, one wants these reviews to be as highly-charged and inflammatory as possible, given the kind of person Trump is. But things are more nuanced than that. Even critics who have clearly set out to rubbish Trump Wines sometimes find themselves wrong-footed into grudgingly faint praise: 'This could actually be much more offensive,' says one, about Trump's Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc Meritage 2014; 'Actually...quite subtle', says another reviewer about a white Trump; 'Well-crafted and food-friendly' is a third cautious encomium. The consensus? Trump Wines are quite often quite okay.

But then again: what really sticks in the mind is the way that the Trump Winery website harps on about so much that isn't actually wine. Yes, lots of wineries try to get you to consume things that are only incidental to the booze itself - guided tours, online sales, corporate functions in the fully air-conditioned Sauvignon Suite - but the Trump Winery not only has tastings, online buying, corporate events and commemorative meals, it also offers four different kinds of wedding experience, a wine club, toy dogs, baseball hats, semi-automated donations to St. Jude's Hospital and a frilly, conspicuously set-dressed boutique hotel with a swimming pool, 'A culinary experience unique to Virginia' and rooms at $449 a night. Given that Trump picked the estate up for not a huge amount before handing it over to his son, Eric, it's hard to imagine that it has much resonance for him. Could it be that Trump, wine and Trump Junior are only in it for the short term? And that some larger ambition awaits the estate? 'I never get too attached to one deal or one approach,' the great man has said. Which I think is something we can all learn from, especially if we've spent the morning drinking a bottle of fortified Chardonnay while wearing a themed baseball hat.