Thursday 25 January 2018

The Wines That Made Us (2): Babycham

So, first things first: no, Babycham isn't a wine. Could we just leave it at that?

All right, then: it's a quasi-wine, a drink that - like Camp Coffee, back in the day - was enough like something it wasn't to keep thousands of British punters happy at a time when the thing it wasn't, wasn't readily available. Camp Coffee, Salad Cream, Babycham: the 1950's in a nutshell.

What Babycham was - and indeed is - is a fizzy alcoholic pear drink, invented some sixty-five years ago by a West County firm called Showerings. Their genius was to capitalise on two fundamental ideas. First, they found an economically viable way make perry, a kind of low-alcohol pear cider, by using pear juice concentrate rather than actual pears - which are hard to harvest and tend to rot overnight. Secondly, Showerings decided to market this stuff exclusively at those young post-War women who wanted an unthreatening, mildly refreshing alcoholic beverage - one they could ask for in a pub or private residence without looking sleazy or indecorous. It came in a dinky little bottle, had a cute foil top and an even cuter cartoon fawn for branding purposes, a cartoon fawn dreamed up by ad agency Colet Dickinson Pearce and as smart as anything from Coca-Cola or Disney.

It was a gap in the market and Showerings filled it. At its peak in the mid-Sixties, the Babycham factory in Shepton Mallet, Somerest, was turning out 108,000 tiny bottles an hour. It was the ur-Prosecco of the time, the hen party Chardonnay before there was Chardonnay. Moreover, it was the first alcoholic product to be advertised on British TV, in 1957. That's how culturally central Babycham is, or was.

And yet. The name, for instance. It suggests champagne, but is actually a reference to the number of prizes the drink won in its earliest, pre-Babycham days - so many that it became known as the Baby Champion, or Babycham for short. Or the associated rubric, The genuine champagne perry: even if you know that perry is a fermented fizzy pear drink, what, exactly, is a champagne perry? But even as this occurs to you, those delirious, groundbreaking 1950's ads point out that The Babycham bottle fills a champagne glass. Lots of things fill a champagne glass, including an aspirin dissolved in water and a small cup of Camp Coffee; but if Babycham is meant to be poured into a champagne glass, well, that makes it more like champagne than other things. And, a bit like champagne, you can mix it with drinks that aren't champagne to make something drinkable in a different way. You can have a Stinger - a mix of Babycham, brandy and Angostura bitters; a less classic (but printed on a promotional Babycham coaster, so it must be okay) Babycham plus a half of Guinness for a kind of flat-pack Black Velvet; a Baby Blue - vodka, Babycham, Blue Curacao, pineapple juice. And so on. It is whatever you want it to be, apart from champagne.

Inevitably, this conceptual wooziness has, over the years, led to the courts. The first time, Showerings brought an action against the founder of The Good Food Guide who implied in an article that they were dishonestly passing off Babycham as a real champagne. The result? The Good Food Guide guy was let off and Showerings had to pay his costs. Second time was in the late Seventies, when French champagne producers were busy litigating to get control of the champagne trade name. This time it went Showerings' way, and they were allowed to keep the word on their packaging, as there could, apparently, be no confusion in the public's mind between a drink costing an arm and a leg and served from a really big champagne bottle; and one coming out of a container about an eighth the size, priced in pence rather than pounds and accessed with a beer bottle opener.

But there was another kind of uncertainty shadowing the early Babycham. At exactly the same time as Babycham was being launched, a rival product appeared: Rosayne, a pink sparkling wine - made from grapes this time - borne aloft in the ads by a drawing of a generically pretty girl whose message to the reader was Tonight's the night for Rosayne - The exhilarating pink wine with the exciting champagne sparkle! At the foot of the page? The 2/- bottle fills a champagne glass

Yes, Rosayne was another sparkling one-shot, sold in a dainty foil-capped minibottle which you opened with a beer bottle opener. The producers were, apparently, Anglo-Mediterranean Wines Limited. On closer inspection, however, Anglo-Mediterranean turned out to be based in Shepton Mallet and their product was marketed by Showerings.

Who'd have thought? Showerings weren't utterly persuaded that Babycham would succeed - in fact, they were unconvinced to the point where they actually had a stake in another, very slightly different, lady-themed sparkling drink. Looking back, of course, it's hard to believe that Babycham wouldn't succeed over Rosayne - it had the dancing fawn, for God's sake; it had the taste that people craved.

Which brings us right up to the present day and a confession: up to now, I have never drunk Babycham. I mean, I was too young when it was in its heyday (I was all of ten years old) and by the Seventies, when drinking became an actual personal thing, I wasn't in the target market. And yet, how can I have got this far without trying one of the most iconic beverages in the British beverage landscape? I mean, Babycham! It's the drink everyone's heard of and very probably has an opinion about, even if they've never touched the stuff. Its perceived naffness goes before it like a blazon.

Fair enough. I acquire a four-pack of Babycham (£2.80 from Tesco) freeze it to death, take out my novelty Threshers bottle opener, lift the lid. Tragically, it now calls itself the Refreshing Sparkling Perry and is owned by Accolade Wines of Weybridge, but it's still got the cute fawn on the label, plus The Happiest Drink In The World across the cap. Taste-wise, it doesn't taste of anything apart from at the very end, where there's a hysterically parching finish that leaves me unable to speak for a whole minute. On the other hand, it's cold, fizzy, very marginally alcoholic (6%) and a lot less than terrible; less terrible than some regular whites I've drunk.

In fact I'm not sure I couldn't get a taste for it - a genteely stimulating tipple that works out a bit pricey in absolute terms but doesn't get you smashed unless you really want it to, possibly by adding a shot of vodka. It's okay. All I have to do now is practise saying I'd love a Babycham! and who knows? It's a bit late in the day, but 2018 could take on a whole new affordably sparkling complexion.


Thursday 18 January 2018

The Wines That Made Us (1): Mateus Rosé

A special SEDIMENT series in which we look back at the wines which made us a nation of wine-drinkers – and revisit those wines today. 

You couldn’t go wrong. No worries about
vintages, or chateaux, or whether it would be dry or sharp. Ask for a bottle of white wine, and you had no idea what kind of polysyllabic German cheek-clencher you might be sold. No, for fledgling wine drinkers like us in the 1970s, it was twenty Rothmans and a bottle of Mateus, thank you very much.

Mateus Rosé had so much going for it. Unlike red or white wine, which were posh and old-fashioned, Mateus was, as you might gather, rosé – or, as its ads made clear for those who didn’t even know what rosé was, pink. 

It was very slightly fizzy. As wine novices, we were of course unaware of the correct term, petillante, but it seemed to be covered by the incorrect term, “very slightly fizzy”. And most of all, it was rather sweet. This in an era when the popular pub tipples of the recently-permitted were Southern Comfort for the fellas, and for girls, a teeth-coating combination of vodka and lime cordial. Which all meant that Mateus was a wine we could drink without fear – and without food.

None of us looked too deeply into the nature of the wine itself. The curlicued, parchment-coloured label simply suggested an established, traditional wine which was centuries old. It seemed authentic. It depicted the Palace of Mateus in Vila Real; “And,” said one ad, “no wine ever had a lovelier birthplace…”

Which obscured two awkward truths. First, the wine had actually been created only thirty years before, exploiting the collapse of the Port market across Europe during World War II. A group of friends in neutral Portugal seized the opportunity to exploit the glut of Portuguese grapes, by making cheap table wines which could be shipped straight across to the lucrative Brazilian market. Only when that market itself declined after the War was Mateus Rosé offered to emerging British wine drinkers.

And the Palace of Mateus was just a stately home near to the commercial winery, whose name and image were purchased for use on the label. The owners were offered the choice of a one-off payment, or a royalty per bottle. In a commercial decision akin to that of the record company exec  who turned down The Beatles, they took the one-off payment.

Then, of course, there was that bottle. “Beware of curously shaped or oddly-got-up bottles,” wrote Kingsley Amis in his 1972 book On Drink. “I would not want to decry Mateus Rosé, a pleasant enough drink which has been many a youngster’s introduction to wine, but its allure, and its price, owe a lot to the work of the glassmaker.”

Its frosted dark green glass hinted at protection of precious contents, while its shape was based on the water flask of a WWI Portuguese soldier. What a great story. Was it a military coincidence that this squat, flat bottle would also conveniently fit into the capacious pocket of a (fashionable at the time) calf-length ex-army greatcoat?

And the bottle led to the lamps. Unlike regular wine bottles, the shorter Mateus bottles were just the right height for bedside lamps:

These would presumably imbue one’s home with all of the sophistication and worldliness that was beginning to accrue to wine-drinking. They did, however, require the drilling of a hole in the glass bottle for the cable which, in the days before instructive YouTube videos, often required a trip to a local hardware shop for advice and equipment, followed equally often by a trip to a local A&E.

Hard as it may be now to believe, Mateus Rosé was drunk by fashionable people. 

It was not to be sneered at. It appeared in the background of a Graham Nash album cover, and in the lyrics of an Elton John song, things now equally hard to believe were not to be sneered at.

But as we learnt more about wine, we all thought less of Mateus Rosé. Its sugary flavour seemed unsophisticated, its colour trivial, and its bottle unsuited to modern tables, whether dining or bedside.
In 2002, they revamped it and dropped the word “rosé” from the bottle, on the grounds that “people know it’s a rosé”, Then a little over a decade later, they turned the bottle from green to clear, on the grounds that “people don’t know it’s a rosé”.

I can no longer find a Peter Dominic, where, in 1973, I would have bought it for 87p a bottle. But I did find it on the next-to-bottom shelf in the supermarket, for £5. Like me, it has changed a bit over the years.

Of course there’s no longer a cork, but even the screwcap is rose-gold, while the similarly coloured neck foil bears a signature which reads worryingly like weapons inspector Hans Blick.

The wine itself is a bold, lurid pink. It shines through the clear glass as if this were one of those jars which used to stand in chemists’ windows.

Was there ever such a thing as strawberry cordial? If so, that is how it smells. And yet, after a fleeting puff of fruit from its slight fizz, it has no flavour. None. Its formula was changed some years back, to appeal more to contemporary tastes, and perhaps the object was to make it as bland as possible. Perhaps if, as the Mateus marketing now imagines, you are on a yacht in the sun, you might enjoy a garish, slightly fizzy wine which tastes of nothing. But then, if you’re on a yacht, you might conceivably have more than £5 to spend on your wine.

So they’ve really taken everything away: the cork, the bottle, the label and the taste – and nostalgia along with them all. I can’t imagine someone turning up now at a girlfriend’s flat, wielding a bottle of Mateus Rosé like an overnight bag. But nor can I imagine someone staying up until 2am, explaining why Tony McPhee has a better guitar technique than Rory Gallagher. Neither the wine nor the conversation seemed very successful then; neither seem particularly appealing today.