Thursday 25 October 2018

Claret of a different class

What are we doing here?? It’s a tasting in London of the 2016 Bordeaux vintage, organised by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, a group of the top chateaux located in the finest appellations in the Gironde. It’s a room full of the sort of people who make, buy and trade cases of serious, top-flight claret. And us.

They say that beggars can’t be choosers, but I choose straight away, and make a beeline for the Chateau Figeac, a Saint-Emilion which is supposedly a favourite of Bryan Ferry. Perhaps that’s because of the label design, on which he and I (as in so many things, of course) are as one. But in one of the very few ways in which we differ, he at least might be wealthy enough to drink it.

Because Figeac 2016 has been selling en primeur just shy of £1900 a case. Which means that with all of the duty, VAT, bells and whistles, a bottle off a shelf is always going to be the wrong side of £200.

And, well, it’s pretty good. It’s nowhere near as good as it’s going to be, and you wouldn’t really get £200 of delight out of a bottle today, but it was a pleasure to experience. Like hearing, for the first time, someone peck out the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth on a piano, and then imagining for yourself what it might eventually become when it’s orchestrated.

But surrounding us were the kind of people regularly involved with claret at £1900 and more a case. Not involved with drinking it, necessarily, but with advising and trading in it. The sort of people who would be buying wine for Bryan Ferry. And looking around, it appeared that the claret market must be a last bastion of the traditional wine merchants of the upper class.

We’re talking old school posh, with the probable emphasis on their old schools. Despite the fact we’re in town, chaps are wearing the sort of gorse and heather tweed jackets that should only be put on when you get West of the Chiswick Roundabout.

The older variety exhibit a sort of confident shabbiness, whether in their tweeds or slightly rumpled suits. The younger ones look like SpAds. There are ladies in pearls.

Now this is very different from some of the modern importers’ tastings, where there are wines from all over the world, and prices all over the option. Where there are trendy-looking young people who probably run restaurants in Hackney, or wine bars in Peckham. Where there might even be people who actually drink the wines.

Instead, here are the sort of people one traditionally trusted with one’s money, which is what all of this is presumably about. Because people buy 2016 claret at £200 a bottle to drink (or, perhaps, to sell on) in a decade’s time. And the only people trusted to advise them what it’s going to be like in ten years’ time are the people who drank a similar claret ten years previously.

So from the days when claret was an entirely upper class pursuit, the whole thing must have perpetuated itself among the posh, vintage after vintage, generation after generation, like some kind of peerage. Man hands on claret trade to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf. Perhaps it’s in the blood – which, when you think about it, is another term for inheritance.

And here comes young Rupert, who can afford to learn the trade without earning very much for now. And presumably in ten years’ time, he’ll be running the show, and saying affably “Have you bought 2026 yet? Because I remember how taut the ‘16s were at this stage, and believe me these will loosen up in the way that the ‘16s did, and you’ll wish you had a case or three in the cellar.

“Do you know, Figeac was only £1900 a case back then?”

The wines themselves go along with this, projecting that air of superiority with which the posh are so comfortable. Whereas there we stand like a couple of inferiors, sampling wines which to us are really pretty much the same. I mean, sorry, but they’re all from Bordeaux, they’re all the same age, they’re all just opened. It’s like sniffing babies; they all sort of smell of milk, except for the one that’s clearly done a poo.

So we retreat into winespeak. This one is a bit grippy around the edges, but how’s that going to mellow as the day grows long? That one takes to the track well, but is it going to fade over the final third?

You see, I wouldn’t know. Perhaps I’m just not posh enough.


Thursday 18 October 2018


So this week, having nothing better to do, I've seen the light: rosé is the way. It's taken a while and PK hasn't helped by pointing out that an awful lot of high street rosé is flavourless overpriced crap, but I've given up fighting, I have got with the programme and I have joined the rest of the world in its secret vice. 

And here's why:

It goes with anything. Short of beef stew or an ultra-rare venison steak, you, or at least I, can drink rosé - thanks to its broadly anonymous lack of any particularly nice taste, see above - with any food that anyone is likely to encounter, including, but not limited to, sushi, bacon and eggs, anything involving a chicken or other winged creature, rhubarb fool, all pastas, Christmas cake, soup, lamb, Goan cuisine, every kind of cheese, flapjacks, salad, soda bread, ham hock, lemon curd, Greek mezze. It is beyond versatile. It is very zen.

In that respect, it scarcely counts as wine. Say goodbye to all that senseless anguish as you try to navigate your way between regions, varietals, makers, vintages. The job is done for you all in one with rosé wines - satisfyingly and with such fabulous ease that rosé becomes a unique, mildly acoholic beverage in its own right, a taxonomy of one, free from any burden of decision-making.

It anagrammatizes into Sore, Ores and Eros.

Great colour. All the way from the earliest mantling of dawn in the eastern sky to nail-bar fuschia: who doesn't like to look at something pink from time to time? It's playful, it's slightly disinfectant, it has an echo of the nursery about it, it's not the colour of spilled blood or indeed blood plasma.

Which also gestures towards a new kind of inclusivity. In these fatally divisive times what we need is a drink which embraces both sides of the debate - red and white - and unites them in an ameliorist's paradise, a world which recognises that there is good and bad in both extremes - but with a little goodwill, a desire for compromise, we can all sit on the same part of the fence in some comfort, unless we're eating raw steak, but don't you think we should really stop eating raw steak, not least on account of the harm it does our bodies? For this very reason, rosés stand apart in that they contain a moral component.

You can find it in song titles and lines of poetry.

Whole lotta rosé - AC/DC
There is a rosé in Spanish Harlem - Ben E. King
Days of wine and rosés - Ernest Dowson, They Are Not Long
Rosé - Don Partridge
Rosés are shining in Picardy - Frederick Weatherly
O rosé thou art sick - William Blake, The Sick Rosé

I could go on.

Well flash people drink it on big boats out of huge bottles. Rosé is not only a wine for the undecided and the non-partisan, it is also a wine for those of us with a marginal taste for bling. It doesn't have to sit in a blushing Methuselah on the upper deck of a ninety-footer, but does almost as well stuck artlessly on the kitchen table next to the chutney. It hints at lifestyle - something I've never actually enjoyed - just by being there, especially if it's that really toney kind of borderline palest pink which denotes big dollars and jaded sensibilities. Ladies love that kind of thing, reeks of class.

It's currently on offer at Waitrose for £4.99. I've gone and bought an extra bottle, just to be on the safe side. Firm & fruity, Spanish probably, probably something, anyway. Who knows? Does the maker know? Is he even interested? The label has elements of puce with a soft metalised finish. It has a pink screwcap so I can tell at a glance what it is when it's on its side in the rack. What else is there? I am going to attempt one of my paellas to go with it. Usually this ends up as a kind of lumpy fish porridge, but I like it. Perfect accompaniment? Rosé. It'll taste terrible, but at least it's one less thing to worry about.


Thursday 11 October 2018

Wine? Or chocolate?

Chocolate? Or wine? And why the choice?

Well, the Marks & Spencer “Dine in” offer of a meal for two comprises a package deal of two starters, a shared main – and either wine or chocolates. (You cannot, it seems, go for an evening of just chocolate and wine, the ever-popular Bridget Jones option.)

So in its current Italian format, that’s a choice for your meal between a bottle of Italian wine, or some Italian dessert chocolates.

Now, what kind of choice is that? I presume it is meant to provide compensation for customers who don’t drink wine. But it’s rather like a hotel package offering a room, a meal, and the use of a car – or, for those who don't drive, flip-flops.

Because, let’s face it: a meal without chocolate is a disappointment. But a meal without wine is a disaster.

It’s intriguing to wonder at the kind of dinner M&S envisage here. Is this a romantic dinner à deux for the culinarily incompetent, just a notch above having a moped rider turn up with two carrier bags? If so, a bottle of wine might provide some much-needed social lubrication. And how many potential lovers are happy to be seen stuffing their face with chocolates?

Or is this a convenient meal for two established partners? Chances are that at least one of you drinks – and in my experience, a wine-drinker is going to be much more annoyed by an absence of wine than a non-drinker is going to be annoyed by an absence of chocolate.

As far as expectation at a meal is concerned, there can surely be no argument. As CJ so ably expressed it, in our entertaining, modestly priced and completely original e-book, Wining & Dining, “The wine must be there, and in quantity, to make a dinner worth attending, or giving, or ruining, or turning up late for, or hosting.

“The wine must be there,” he insists, “And it mustn't be so foul that it makes your armpits prickle.”

Whereas chocolate? It’s been a while since someone tried to persuade us that chocolates were a key part of a dinner, and that someone was After Eight. In fabulously dated TV ads, dinner was portrayed as a formal, black-tie affair, with candles and silver, and military men smoking cigars. People cast each other meaningful glances, although unlike many dinner parties today, the meaning of which they were full was not “Do you think we can leave yet?”

Black tie? Well, things may be different round at the Rees-Moggs’, but CJ classes it an upmarket dinner if all of the men wear socks.

And what was all this “after eight” business, anyway? At Casa K, we’re usually still on the pre-dinner nibbles just after eight, wondering if all of the guests are actually going to show up.

No, I’m sorry, whether it’s a romantic dinner for two or a full-blown dinner party, chocolates are not so much after eight these days as afterthought.

Okay, there are similarities between wine and chocolate. Neither is particularly good for your health. You can choose between damaging your liver, or your teeth. Wine seems to contain fewer calories, although at least you can drive after consuming a gutload of chocolate.

(And don’t you like the way M&S describe them as “dessert” chocolates, as if you should treat them as an actual course?)

Or is it that M&S perceive both as a “luxury” item? Unfortunately chocolate, like wine, is only as luxurious as you pay for. It is hard to conceive that a substance with the same name can be either the creation of an artisan chocolatier, or a Freddo bar. But then, it’s hard to believe that Chateau Lafite is the same product as Penguin Sands.

Look, if you don’t drink, take the wine anyway. Even if you don’t consume it, you can always take it as a gift to the next dinner you attend. Which perhaps explains the bottles of dodgy M&S wine now residing in my cellar…


Thursday 4 October 2018

Home Brew II

So I put the idea of making our own booze to PK and, to my slight astonishment, he says, Well, maybe we should. I say, Really? He says Yes, and goes on to reveal that his Father used to make rhubarb wine which he left to mature in the pantry of the old family home, where it used to explode from time to time. We'd be sitting there, he says, and there'd be a crash and we'd know another bottle had gone. Really? I say, again, and he nods. Things you learn.

So then I explain about the kits and the YouTubes I've been half-arsedly scrutinisiing and the muck you apparently have to put in your mixing tub and where do you keep it all for the love of God? And he nods and says, Well it sounds quite interesting. Maybe we should do one each and compare them.

This is not what I was anticipating, not at all. Where is the regulation issue PK, with all his la-di-da beverages and do's and don'ts and wide-ranging shibboleths? My bluff appears to have been called, inadvertently or otherwise (how was I to know about his Dad and the rhubarb wine?) and now I have to make it seem that what I wanted all along, was to make my own wine. Actually, what I really wanted was for PK to volunteer to do everything, leaving me with the relatively easy job of sage onlooker, but life isn't like that. So I nod back at him, committing myself at the very least to a fresh trawl through the internet for tips and materials.

Back at the screen, the first thing is to weed out the American contributors, with their remorseless positivity and their facial hair. That done, I find myself back with this guy - the one who previously contented himself with merely showing the world the contents of a Wilko wine box, but who is now, affably enough, taking us through the process of making a complete Cabernet Sauvignon Wilko wine. He's from the Wirral, I'm guessing, somewhere Merseyside anyway, and his approach to film-making has some of the deconstructed grammar of the French New Wave, the same non-hierarchical approach to narrative and the nature of reality, but it hangs together. And he's wearing shorts.

In fact it's a pleasure to watch him mix the brew, apparently with the least possible forethought (the memory card in his camera runs out a third of the way through; he hasn't bought himself a plastic funnel) and fretting over what his wife will say about the marks on the dining table. At some point, it's true, I start to lose focus and gaze instead on YouTube's suggestions for what I might want to watch next (a brief history of electric guitar distortion; Seinfeld outtakes) and then, a bit later on, I skip forward to see how he's managing, but it all looks straightforward enough. He's got some fancy gear - a big old demijohn and an airlock to go in the bung - and he's clearly done it before, showing no nervousness around the various packets and sachets that come out of the Wilko box like deep space rations, and sure enough I start to feel that, given time and practice, I could manage the same level of dextrous ease. The whole thing, fermentation included, seems to take about a week and a half. I could find that time. And no actual grapes involved.

Only snag? At the end of the process, he siphons the proto-wine off into some washed-out old screwtop wine bottles, serves it up (not shown in video) and pronounces it good. Now, I reckon if we're dealing with a ten-day-old wine, then screwtops should be perfectly adequate. PK, on the other hand, is thinking of giving the wine he hasn't actually made yet a chance to lose some of its chemical textures and arrogant youthfulness by laying it down: which means, he says, corks. Which in turn means, if I were to match him all the way, that I would have to buy some wines which came in bottles that had corks in them. I mean, six fancier than usual wines with actual corks, plus the demijohn, plus the airlock, plus the kit itself, it's starting to stack up. Given that the whole, or nearly the whole, point is to get wine for next to nothing, this is the wrong direction of travel. Still. I'm seeing him again in a couple of weeks; a fresh item on the agenda.