Thursday 27 September 2018

Last of the Summer Wine

Before you ask, this week’s title has nothing to do with the fact that CJ and I are ageing codgers at whom people sometimes laugh. No, it’s all down to the perceptible turn in the weather. It’s time for the wardrobe to switch from cotton to wool, from short-sleeves to long. It’s time to turn from my cold breakfast of bircher muesli – oats painstakingly prepared each evening – to my hot breakfast of porridge – oats painstakingly prepared each morning. And it’s time for the last of the summer wine.

Does our taste really change with the seasons? Or is this simply another of my ridiculous self-imposed edicts, which mean that wine-drinking ends up somewhere between ritual and ridicule?

Because we do have a summer wine at Casa K. We discovered El Perro Verde in a restaurant in Barcelona, on a blisteringly hot day. It’s a Verdejo, from Rueda, fresh and crisp and zingy, all of that stuff people say wines should be in the summer, with a bit of grassiness and a touch of apple. We went back, and it was just as good a second time. And when I found it in Barcelona’s “most prestigious” wine merchant (because where else would I go?)  I brought two bottles home in my case, each enrobed for transport in a carrier bag and two of my dirty socks.

And it travelled! It was just as clean and refreshing and zingy at home. And it extended our summer experience by a couple of London suppers.

But Verdejo really is a summer wine, best drunk young and fresh. It tends to get a bit bland as it gets older, and loses its zing. And it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that zing (doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah doo-wah).

This year, as we weren’t going to Barcelona, I dug around online, and found a Spanish wine specialist who would economically ship us a case. A bit more expensive than on even a prestigious Barcelona shelf, but less expensive than in a Barcelona restaurant. Twelve bottles duly arrived, packed in an enormously complicated folding cardboard case contraption. It took half an hour unfolding and dismantling before it could be recycled; but that was still preferable to each bottle being transported inside a carrier bag and two of somebody else’s dirty socks.

And that case has been our summer’s worth. Portioned out carefully for meals in the garden, for those light, spritely suppers that only work in the sun, for special occasions and largely just for the two of us, one of whom will inevitably say “Ah, Barcelona…”

With the weather turning, there are three bottles left. I can only hope that either some warm days come before the wine turns disappointing; or that the wine will stay zingy until some warm days come. Neither of which now feel terribly likely.

Is this just nonsense about the weather? What about drinking in climate-controlled restaurants, where the weather outside is irrelevant? Ah, but you’re now wearing autumn clothes. You haven’t had a dose of sunshine on your skin. You woke up to porridge, not muesli.

And to be honest, I’m now looking forward again to what David Williams, writing in The Observer,   describes as “the bear hugs of the heavy reds”. Oh, and the porridge. On a trip to Cornwall, I discovered the impossibly delicious luxury of porridge with clotted cream. My arteries are palpitating with anticipation…


Thursday 20 September 2018

Home Brew

So PK is all of a tizzy because he can get a bottle of red wine for under £4.00. Seriously. It's as if the fine range of sub-£4.00 bottles available from Lidl Aldi or Asda never existed, but there you are: some people don't know what's going on in the world. I mean, I could have told him about these cheap boozes without even bothering to look them up.

Then it occurs to me, PK's blind spots or not: if we are really, really, determined to go low, there is a trick which both of us have missed so far - making our own. To be frank, this first entered my head a few months ago when I was killing time in a hardware store in south-west Wales and ended up staring at a section of DIY wine kits (see pic). I mean, here was a real choice, not just a few makeweights to keep the shelves from looking empty. There was home brew Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay (Chardonnay!), Zinfandel, even some others that I might have missed. Yes, extreme south-west Wales, the ultima thule of the A477, is the kind of place where you have to make your own entertainment, it's a fair old drive from where I was to sexy Haverfordwest, you have to improvise. So why not boil up some Chardonnay now that the evenings are getting longer?

Of course I failed to buy a kit while I was there - and only £20, reduced to clear - but I can still load up online with Shiraz/Merlot kits, Malbec kits, Pinot Grigio kits, Frascati kits, Primitivo kits, Australian Character kits whatever they are, a whole world of kits, most holding out the scarcely-credible promise of a drinkable wine for no more than £1.00 a bottle. Prices are a touch stiffer if buy the gear online rather than in a discount Welsh hardware store, nearer the £30.00 mark for some kits, £70.00 for the authentically hardcore setups that include a 30-litre bucket, steriliser, instructional DVD and all sorts, but the more you make the greater the savings and how can you put a price on that kind of value?

And it's so easy to do! Even if you don't have an instructional DVD, there are YouTubes galore, men, usually men, clanking about in their kitchens and garages and dens, optimising your chances of getting a really satisfactory brew out of whatever materials you have to hand. My favourites? Craig, here, apparently startled to find himself in a roomful of plastic buckets and pipes with a camera pointing at him, but prepared to make a go of it nonetheless; something called Sonoran Living, in which a magenta woman and a plainly angry man show us an authentically disgusting assemblage of things to make wine out of; and this, disarmingly unidirectional vid, in which a bloke in a shirt takes out the contents of a wine kit, puts them on a table and tells us what they are.

The rest of it is just tipping powders and grape juice (or your own grapes, crushed; or indeed any other organic matter) into plastic tubs, cleaning up the inevitable mess and walking away. And then coming back and putting the product in bottles. As my pal with the home-made champagne observed a while ago, wine-making, in comparison with beer-making, 'Is a mug's game. It's so easy.' To put it another way, if my Father-in-Law can, or at least could, make a potable wine, so can I.

Next step? Getting PK involved. After all, I don't want all the bother of washing out bottles or admixing the acidity correction, let alone pouring out the final brew and corking it up. Not only is he fitter and stronger than me, he has a talent for pickiness which is exactly what we need in a tightly controlled situation like this. Actually, now I think about it, is £1.00 a bottle really such a bargain, given the amount of faffing around involved and the almost certain vileness of the final wine? Or can we get it down to 50p? If the latter, then a bottle of anything with Château Sediment label might prove irresistible. That has to be the goal. I'll put it to him, next time I see him.


Thursday 13 September 2018

The price of Penguin Sands

How low you were thinking of sinking?  On the basis of “how low can you go?”, I can report that this, an actual wine, containing actual alcohol, is being sold for under £4 a bottle, via the lowest shelf at Sainsbury’s.

I have no idea how the finances of this work out. CJ gave up even the £5 pricepoint a few years back. I am not employed by KPMG, PWC or any of those other financial acronyms; the only thing I sometimes have to account for is my whereabouts. But I see that £2.16 of a bottle’s price goes straight to the Chancellor in Excise Duty, along with some 80p in VAT, leaving only about a pound here to cover shipping, bottling, profit – and a few pence worth of wine. So let’s look at it that way. Here is South African wine probably costing less than 35p a bottle. 

Presumably to reassure us, the marketing department seem to be relying on the established tropes of New World wine. First, it’s named after an animal. People love animals and, for a wine brand, an animal need have no discernible connection to wine. Frog, dog, eagle, beagle, black cat, fat cat, moose, goose… penguin?

I believe that when a penguin is underwater, it is a smooth, sleek missile of an animal. It goes in for the krill. 

But that’s not the image in my mind. What's in my mind is a creature swaggering across the land, appendages hanging at its sides like a hooligan ready to fight. And fight they will.

Penguins look as if they’re carrying a bit too much timber around the old waistline, which let’s face it is a concern of many a wine-drinker. And hooligan. And they waddle from side to side, slipping occasionally on ice, and looking sort of…to be honest…drunk.

Is that image of unstable, fighting fatboys appropriate to marketing a wine? Well, at £3.95 a bottle…

Anyway, to develop its name further, they’ve gone for the cliché of an attractive location. Every place on a New World wine label is a bay or a cove, a creek or a river, a point or a leap. Rarely an estuary, basin or canal.

To create your appealing New World wine name, you take an animal from column one, and attach an attractive topographical location from column two. Frog Cove. Moose Creek. Dog Point. Goose Bay. (Spoiler: at least one of those wines actually exists.)

And yes, there is an attractive, sandy beach in South Africa with penguins. From a distance the penguins look just like people, swaggering across the sand, deciding which bit to occupy, and telling their offspring that it’s too soon for an ice cream. Lovely. This image distracts attention from the fact that Penguin Sands is actually bottled in the somewhat more prosaic and brownfield location of Elton, Cheshire.

What else do the marketeers put on their label? Well, something which hints at quality without any potentially disputable detail. Reserve. Premier. Classic. In this case they’ve plumped for Exclusive, for those who feel it’s a positive when something is sold only by Sainsbury’s.

And also the words BOLD AND ROBUST, which on a cheap Shiraz in block capitals reads somewhere between a challenge, a warning and a threat. Hang on to your hat, and buckle your seat belt. The tyres felt a little splashy on the way over here.

Like a cuckolded penguin, it comes out fighting. Behind the threatening colour of an old contusion lurks an aggressive, bitter, septic flavour, which pulls your palate tight and coagulates around your gums. It gets more palatable after half a glass as your mouth surrenders, but although it gets easier to swallow, it continues to kick up through your nose. Notes of Airwick and Copydex. It pulls a little to the right.

Barring abject penury, there is no reason to ever return to Penguin Sands, but it does prove that, even given our punitive Duty and Tax regime, it is still possible to produce a bottle of actual wine for £3.95. Like Dr Johnson’s dog walking on its hind legs, it is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.


Thursday 6 September 2018


Q: So here we are, back after weeks of travelling around by boat and by car and what have we learned?

A: There are a hell of a lot of vineyards in France

Q: ?

A: Well, yes, that's it. I am overwhelmed by the vineyards. I cannot believe there is so much demand for wine, not even in France. We might as well be washing our shirts in wine or rust-proofing our bicycles with it, so much of this part of the planet appears to be dedicated to its production.

So then the question becomes, how do these vineyards make money, given that there are so many thousands and thousands of them? This has been bugging me for a while. Down in the south-east, Ventoux, region, many of the vineyards are made up of quite small parcels of land, adorably set among rolling hills and steep mountain ranges, interspersed with orchards and olive groves, the vines often playfully untidy, the earth between them sometimes bare and conscientiously tilled, sometimes grassed over, sometimes completely covered in weeds. It's outrageously pictuesque, but does it pay? It looks so inefficient. Especially when contrasted with the places on offer in the other bit of France we quartered, including (if I remember right) Lussac-St Emilion and Puisseguin-St Emilion, not that we actually drank any of these, but anyway.

Unlike the Ventoux plots, these are huge, incredibly orderly, hectare after hectare of vines razored into perfect conformity, no stragglers, no odds and ends, no weeds, just regimented plants of uniform height and character marching into the distance, where, presumably, an equally rectilinear château sits counting the proceeds. It's the difference between Beijing and Bath. All right, Ventoux is a smallish name in French wines, Bordeaux is an industry, but Ventoux growers like to make a profit as much as anyone else. To put it another way: how big does a vineyard have to be, in order to survive?

Evidently a huge amount depends on exactly where you are, how highly-prized your region is, how mature the vines are, what subsidies are available, how easy it is to strip-mine the terrain of its grapes using modern equipment, how easy it is to hire people at key times of the year and so on. And this is before you even get to the terrifying imponderables of weather, disease, infestation, fashionability. I know this. But on the other hand, it doesn't stop me Googling How big does a vineyard need to be?

Turns out this is a question asked at least once every day, sometimes more. There are scores of answers, many of them aimed with full finger-wagging severity at well-heeled semi-retirees who fancy their chances at winemaking while utterly overlooking the downside. A rough count suggests that a decent-sized holding in France or Italy is about 8 hectares, going down to 4 if the vines are good and you can get along on a smallish profit. The average holding in France is 10.5 hectares; the average price of land (excluding the Champagne region, which is so far off the scale it distorts the results) is about 60,000, but you can get something sensible in a non-chic part of the country for 12,000 or less.

Clearly, you can make money out of a single French hectare if it's fair quality and productive; whether you simply harvest the biggest possible tonnage of raw grapes and send them to the local co-operative or press and bottle the product yourself is another issue. Elsewhere, the economies of production are such that whatever the size of the holding, you might very well cut off all the grape clusters except for one, perfect, cluster per vine, devote the whole season to bringing on that bunch of grapes and then turn it into a fabulously high-end wine whose scarcity you have gone miles out of your way to secure.

Our pals with their little piece of heaven in the Ventoux have established a tiny vineyard of about half a hectare and I have no idea which way they plan to go; nor, indeed, have they, given the youthfulness of the vines and the bother of harvesting. Equally, I could plant a vineyard in our back garden, do all the work by hand and possibly make a couple of quid, if it wasn't in London, north-facing and there wasn't a huge tree right in the middle of the plot. Still. It's something to think about, now that autumn's approaching. And I might even get an EU grant!