Thursday 27 April 2017

The Week In Wine: Small, Cheap, Discoveries A Cause For Celebration? You Be The Jury

So the Brother-in-Law gets back from his dash to Calais in search of bargain grog and, true to his word, brings round three bottles of Kina Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc at £2.99 a bottle and three of Waipara Hills Pinot Noir from Central Otago - each of these coming in a troubling £6.99, a sum I justified to myself several weeks earlier using a rationale I can now no longer access. Still: it averages out at about a fiver a bottle - only this time with the promise of better, less tearful, drinking than I am normally used to.

And what do you know? The Sauvignon Blanc is really not bad - actually very good, especially at £2.99: nice floral notes, pleasingly balanced acidity, grown-up finish, the whole experience utterly removed from my usual Sauvignon Blanc bile juice. Why didn't I ask for half a case? Especially since the Pinot Noir is nice without being arrestingly so, not the show-stopper I reckoned £6.99 should easily command. But anyway, I am marginally ahead of the game at this point and my vacuous sense of assurance increases very slightly the next day when this piece of inflammatory nonsense is pointed my way - champagne now being cheaper than mouthwash - and I start to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the world is at last coming round to my way of thinking. This train of thought only persists for a moment, as I know that the world never really comes round to my way of thinking not least because to all intents and purposes I have no way of thinking, only a way of reacting.

But then: the wife and I find ourselves at a dinner party, one of those things that PK habitually uses as a way of mediating his understanding of reality, an event where there are more than four people round the table and we all get a (delicious) starter and a very fancy main course and it is all as civilised as it could possibly be. So civilised, in fact, that I find myself seated opposite a fantasticaly distinguished medical type (penetrating gaze, quiet conviction of his own rightness) who leans across and says to me, in all sincerity:

'We've got a friend who's a Master of Wine. And he said to us the other day, The wine business, it's all a lot of bullshit!'

Well, I'm not going to dispute this, not least because I am already slightly awash with a toothsome Crozes Hermitage which seems to be freely available and I sense that anything I say stands a good chance of being unintelligible. Only then my new friend goes on:

'What's more, this Master of Wine was serving us a rosé and he ran out, so he said, I'll mix some up with a red and a white. And he did! He just mixed the two until he got the effect he wanted! It was very good!'

I slur something predictable about grapeskins, but my head is reeling, not just from the Crozes Hermitage but from the vista of possibilities that this information, however anecdotal, has revealed. Of course it's long been a plan of mine to see how realistically red + white = rosé - so long, that I'd forgotten about it until this moment. Now though, it comes rushing back with real kinetic force, not least because I have also been nurturing a quiet detestation of a wine page I found in the local glossy free mag - a wine page giving itself over (here's a surprise) to the delights of drinking rosé wines in the summertime.

As I write this, this blossoms gently bob in the breeze, the rosé roundup (Think Pink) begins, so you can see at once where this particular cavalcade of cliché is tending: in other words, lovely summer fruits, plenty of fruit, citrus in the fruity mix, just as much fruit and tastes of summer and sunshine. The clincher, though, the thing that really hurts, is not just the banality of the prose or its smugness but the fact that the very cheapest wine on offer is from Waitrose, at £8.99, while the priciest (Sainsbury's) comes in at £19.50. This latter - what do you know? - May be a step too far for many, but is also, consolingly enough, a glass of Mediterranean sunshine at its best.

Very well. A man I have never met before assures me that Masters of Wine cobble together a pink wine beverage using leftover red and white; a magazine-based wine selection sends me into a tizzy of rage with its complacent rosé lipservice; champagne and mouthwash cost the same; the stars align - and I understand that now is the moment to start experimenting with some of my crappiest whites and most implacable reds to create a true homebrewed rosé, still and sparkling. The summer is indeed starting to take shape.


Thursday 20 April 2017

Can we pardon Aldi's French?

I once imagined that I might arrive at a station in life and be quietly alerted to attention-worthy wine arrivals. “Just thought you might like to know, old chap, there’s a couple of cases of rather well-priced claret coming in next week which might interest you…” 

Well, thanks to Sediment, people do now tell me about wines. “This is right up your aisle,” tweets @Simonnread. Unfortunately, it turns out he is referring to a new range of wines from Aldi.

But off I trot to my nearest branch, unerringly guided by following the descent of planes on the Heathrow flight path. Perhaps the station in life for which I am destined is indeed Hounslow Central.

Aldi's new Pardon My French range presents four French wines, each “cheekily” labelled with a kind of phonetic interpretation of their appelation. It’s what they call an “accessible” range, either because it only costs £4.99 a bottle, or because it clearly targets idiots. In fact it’s hard to decide who it insults more, the French and their language or the Aldi shopper and their intelligence.

For example, the Minervois is called Men Are From Mars. Why? Have we really sunk to the level at which we make fun of the way words in other languages sound? And even if you say menarefromMars very very quickly, it hardly sounds like Minervois. In fact, it is actually harder to say.

Ironically, as I struggle through the overcrowded aisles, I see that Aldi customers are already a linguistically sophisticated bunch. They must be, to distinguish between Shredded Wheat and, adjacent to it, Wheat Shreds. Between Nutella and the cheaper Nutoka. There is a range of instant stuffing called Quixo, which rings some kind of phonetic bell.

Or is it only the French language with which the customers are supposed to be challenged? Because I see gnocchi, and chorizo Ibérico, and a pizza with schiacciata salami. If they can manage those, surely they can manage Fitou?

But no; in the Pardon My French range, Fitou becomes Fit You. Of course, I think immediately of TS Eliot’s use in The Waste Land of the line from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, “Why then Ile fit you”. Like many Aldi customers, I’m sure.

Does calling a wine Fit You make it in any way more appealing, more “accessible”, than calling it Fitou? Or does it just sound like a sneeze?

Their Ventoux is renamed Want To, an absurdity of a phrase. If you’re going down that route, why not call it Want Two, which at least makes some kind of sense, and suggests people might like it and desire more? But no; it’s Want To. It doesn’t even begin with a V, a sound widely and easily pronounced in this country, as in the now-common phrase, “Gregg Wallace no longer feels the need to wear a shirt on Masterchef, and instead appears in his vest."

And their Cotes de Gascogne is called Gastronomy. I suppose we should be grateful they didn’t simply rename it after Gazza.

Having driven to Hounslow Aldi to get them, I felt some kind of duty to taste all four of these aberrations. That Cotes de Gascogne has an initial elderflower taste which evaporates immediately, leaving only a faint lemony tang and a claggy feel as it warms up. The Ventoux is acrid, cheek-puckering and bitter. After an initial aggressive blast, the Minervois is flabby and flavourless, like a diluted cordial. And the Fitou is oily, flat and feeble, and labouring under a bouquet of Elastoplast. They are all, as Aldi might say, Mayored.

A spokesman from Aldi told the Mirror: “There’s no doubt that France produces some of the best wines in the world”.Well, if this was all the French wine I had tasted, there would be doubt in my mind  

He went on to say that “we really believe these wines have a certain ‘je ne sais quoi.'" Which he presumably doesn’t expect his customers to understand. Or did he mean to say ‘Juno say choir’?

Pardon My French? Sorry, no.


Thursday 13 April 2017

Horrible Cheap Wines: A User's Half-Guide

So having got through my gutbucket Tesco indulgence (least worst turned out to be the generic Chardonnay, worst by a mile the Spanish red) and not yet having claimed my Brother-in-Law's booze run offerings (this weekend, I'm hoping) I am drifting a bit and therefore naturally prey to the first piece of cheapskate news that comes my way. Which turns out, equally naturally, to come from PK, who draws my attention to this from Majestic Wine: a bid to get properly stuck into the Cadbury's Creme Egg sector of the wine trade, with a choice of price-pointed, fun-loving, cartoon-driven generics, including, worryingly, a Spanish red and a Chardonnay with a picture of two cartoon men wearing comedy fruit headpieces.

Normally, I'd say yes to all this, because, after all, cheap'n'cheerful is exactly what I live for and will, in all probability, die of. There's something melancholy, though, about Majestic being reduced to cartoons of men in fruit costumes or their underpants in order to cop a piece of Tesco's business - because, back in their prime, the point of Majestic was that they found you entertaining, affordable grog which was every bit as entertaining and affordable as I'm sure their new Majestic Loves range will turn out to be; but which looked, and sometimes tasted, as if it had come from somewhere other than a huge industrial zone outside Valencia. I suppose you could say it had, or appeared to have, charm, once.

But this is where we are and I'm sure next time I'm in Majestic I will be drawn ineluctably towards the brightly-coloured junk at one end of the store with a view to wasting £5.99 multiplied by x, where x is > 1 but < 6. But then it occurs to me, not just that Majestic are being forced to try and out-supermarket the supermarkets, but that horrible cheap brazen wine is now so ubiquitous, especially in my world, that I must have evolved some kind of mechanism for choosing between these various rubbishes, something other than the point where cheapjack marketing meets blind chance.

So, after some head-scratching, I come up with three cardinal considerations: colour, bottling, provenance. When going downscale, red is always the first choice. Miraculously, a red can be both disgusting and yet just this side of drinkable. Yes, I've applied this rule too many times not to be caught out by it, but that's where I stand: especially if the alternative is white, which can be okay if you freeze it to the point at which it hurts your hand but which otherwise is nothing more than dirty alcoholic rainwater. Moreso with sparkling whites - something about the bubbles increases the toxicity, hard to escape even if you chill the stuff to a near-solid. And on no account should anyone touch a crap rosé. I don't know what it is about that drink: I've drunk some appalling rosés for which I've paid £7 or more, and the cheap ones are every bit as awful, only with an extra tramp-like hogo coming off them. And don't even mention Zinfandel Blush, the party squeaker of still wines.

Bottling? A nice label is what it's all about. Too spartan and/or gimmicky and it galls you every time you look at it. Too fastidious - drypoint Provençal mas, hand-turned lettering, date - and it acts as a tart reminder of how much distance there is between it and the thing it's a gutter variant of. But (depending on taste) a bit of playfulness can really lift your spirits even as your mouth tells you another story. That Le Réveil Cabernet Sauvignon which goes for around the magic £5.99 is pretty rough, but the label's so cute you can forgive it almost anything.

And the provenance? Lidl, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Aldi, they all do perfectly okay trash wines if you stick to £5.99 and not allow yourself to be tempted much lower. Asda and M & S Food, I'm not sure; the Co-op is usually somewhere out in the sticks and therefore too small to have a range. Waitrose, on the other hand, is emphatically a bad place for your garbage drinking needs because they aim their produce at an imaginary clientele which entertains lifestyle choices and confidently splashes £8 + on its everyday wines, with the result that anything off the bottom shelf is beneath its contempt, literally. It is, however, my nearest full-sized supermarket - a two-minute walk from the front door. And it sells Le Réveil. The upshot? I have spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds on my cheap drinking habits in there, over the years: a contradiction which, alone, may account for my current dismal state. I think The Guide may need more work.


Thursday 6 April 2017

This sceptic's aisle

Don’t you just love reports and surveys which seem to bear no similarity to your own experience?

We have just been told that there are high levels of customer satisfaction in the retail experience of buying wine in a supermarket. That customers are happily “lingering” in the wine aisle. And that we find shopping in the supermarket for wine almost, but not quite, as enjoyable as shopping for cheese at the deli counter.

Where to start…?

I hesitate to begin sentences with the phrase “Am I the only person…”, because it invariably turns out that I am. But am I the only person who hates purchasing cheese from the deli counter?

Waiting and waiting, trying to remember who was before you (because the old ‘take a numbered ticket’ system seems to have been relegated to the grimmest of hand-out queues). And trying to remember who was after you, because there’s going to be a background of tutting and sighing throughout your service if it’s that posh-looking bloke with just a bachelor’s basket.

There are the agonies of trying to order the right amount – a bit less than that…no, a bit more than that… no, just a bit more…It’s harder than directing someone to scratch your back. And “Would you like a taste?” No, actually, I wouldn’t, because I don’t usually start my day with Stilton.

And the whole ghastly experience is surrounded by the suspicion that it’s exactly the same stuff that’s wrapped in plastic on the aisles, only given some kind of artisan sheen by carving it in front of you.

So the wine aisle has got a pretty low enjoyment threshold to surpass as far as I’m concerned. Sadly, it fails even that.

What is this “lingering” nonsense? People aren’t “lingering” in the wine aisle, they’re paralysed with indecision. They’re overwhelmed with choice. They’re frozen with incomprehension, like Victorians watching a jet plane.

It’s like this. You don’t “linger” in a polling booth. You’ve gone in, expecting to make your decision between three, maybe four well-known names. And suddenly there are all these strange alternatives; Homes Not Roads, Roads Not Homes, H’Angus the Monkey, Lord Buckethead of the Gremloids, Douglas Carswell. There’s even a whole second sheet, for a simultaneous local election that you didn’t even know was happening, as confusing as an unexpected special offer on Chilean reds.

And you’re overwhelmed with opportunities. Suddenly there are options you didn’t even know existed. This is choice overload.

In the wine aisle, there are even more unexpected possibilities. Look, that one’s half price – or is it really? Is that the one I read about, or not? Oh sod it, shall I settle for that one again? “Coming, dear, just coming… I’ll catch you up…” You’re going to get it wrong. You’re not lingering, you’re panicking.

No, all that “lingers” in my supermarket wine aisle is a faint air of desperation. Or is it disinfectant?

How, after all that, can people find shopping for wine in a supermarket “enjoyable” and “satisfying”? Only because there’s a powerful sense of anticipation, of enjoyment to come, which doesn’t generally apply in the aisle of kitchen rolls. Unlike many household purchases, you believe that your supermarket wine will bring you positive pleasure. Which really is a triumph of hope over experience.

Please, don’t tell supermarkets that they will benefit if they “invest in making the wine aisle an enjoyable place for shoppers to linger.” God knows what obstacles they will conceive to keep us there for longer. Jugglers? Magicians? Comfy chairs, to sit and peruse the Wall of Wine?

Or perhaps they’ll just move the Saturday assistant over from the cheese counter. To hand you a bottle when you point to it, rather than let you pick it up yourself.

The next time Shopper Intelligence explore something like this, I suggest they involve someone more appropriate in their research. Like an intelligent shopper.