Thursday 28 February 2019

The Sunshine Counties

So, a couple of weeks ago, PK and I are at this tasting of Hampshire wines. Just looking at the phrase Hampshire wines gives me a bit of a start: go back a generation and it would have been the cue for a flurry of cheap gags about Derbyshire sherry and the clarets of Aberystwyth, but such are the times we live in that we go along quite looking forward to it. And yes, it is all very pleasant, although PK is frustrated at not being able to snoop around the smartyboots private club in which the event is taking place, on account of the wines of Hampshire being kept sequestered in a special basement with its own tradesmen's entrance.

That aside, what do we find? Basically a roomful of sparkling whites, about two still wines and a load of people murmuring suavely away at each other. Nothing wrong with that; we toil round the tables along with the other cognoscenti (Oz Clarke!) and I think come out finally in favour of the Hambledon Classic Cuvée; or it might be the Danebury Madeleine Angevine. Either way I forget to pick up a pencil at the check-in desk and now it's gone out of my head.

What I do recall, though, is that a) there is a definite regionality or, at least, identity, in the stuff we try, which is charming, especially given the charm of Hampshire itself, one of my favourite counties, and b) for all that, it is kind of underwhelming: a lot of crisp, slightly virtuous, Englishy hints of apples and hedgerows, a whiff of bicarb, but also a very slightly tragic undertow of Babycham - I mean, a really top-notch Babycham, as good as Babycham could ever get, but there all the same.

The upshot? Given that I've been droning on about the latter-day thrill that is English wine, I come out of the the tasting conflicted. Why is it all so nearly good without getting completely across the finish line? Is it the wine witholding or is it me? I feel I have to act. First move is to bring round a bottle of Camel Valley Cornish white sparkliing to the PK house where he and Mrs K are having some people round, plus me and the wife, for a sophisticated three-courses-plus-cheese dinner such as I can I only dream of confecting. This is in order to answer the question that PK and I keep fatuously shouting at each other at the tasting: Would you serve this at a dinner party?

Well, yes, it gets served and everyone makes polite noises about it, but it is still pretty much Babycham, the sort of Babycham you might get in Business Class on Cathay Pacific, yes, but Babycham. So, on to phase two.

Phase two is a bottle of New Hall Bacchus 2016 Reserve which someone must have brought round to our place and which I must, equally, have stuffed away against just such an eventuality. Essex-based, this one, and a tantalisingly bland 10.5%, so no risk of running amok even if I drink the bottle in one. As it happens, it lingers for three days before I get to the end of it and what do you know? It's definitively pleasant, without quite ever being there. I mean, it's fine, but so unassertive it's hard to know if I'm actually drinking it or only think I am.

On the other hand, it does befriend me in an odd sort of way. I start to think of it fondly, with its self-effacing semi-presence in the bottom of the fridge, a drink I can take or leave without knowing which of these two I have actually done, but a companion nonetheless, a modest tipple on the way to something else, perhaps, something shoutier. I could go for another bottle if it came my way.

Which leads us back (doesn't it always) to the fact that there is a nice little niche here for something genteel, tempered, very English in a Georgian domestic architecture, country garden sort of way, except that the booze costs twice as much as it should. And until English winemakers get some serious economies of scale - about half southern England under vines should do it - there the matter rests. Given the way the planet's burning up, I would say they've got about six weeks to act.


Thursday 21 February 2019

The game name

Of course it was the name which caught my eye. The late Jack Bruce was one of the greatest bass guitarists ever, a man who merged jazz and rock techniques, the member of Cream who wrote their best-known numbers, and a chap who was not a stranger to the bottle. Oh, sorry – this is Bruce Jack.

Apologies for the confusion. There may be people who have been christened Simon Paul, Charles Ray or Vincent Gene – but they haven’t put their name on a wine label. It would be the same if I'd seen a bottle of whisky labelled Daniel Jack. 

It’s not Bruce Jack’s fault, obviously. I blame the parents. But there is his name, celebrity-sized, like an Ian Botham red wine, or a UB40 red red wine. Little wonder I thought it was from the estate of Jack Bruce.

And while we’re used to seeing winemakers’ names on labels, albeit not quite so large, we’re not really used to seeing their photos. You don’t see pictures of Louis Jadot, or Michel Chapoutier, on their labels. But here on his back label is Bruce himself, with his sleeves rolled up, ready for action, ready to, er, “Collect new board from shaper…”

Come again? I think this may be something to do with surfing. It is not a diary item in many wine circles. And call me narrow-minded, but if you’re looking at the actual winemaker’s name and face, and you’re about to buy his product, surely you want to believe that he’s been thinking about making wine? Not about buggering off to his surfboard shaper?

This is particularly important when the wine is being marketed entirely on the name, the face and the character of the winemaker himself. Bruce Jack launched his South African wines in the UK at the turn of the year. Bruce has a background in big, mass-market blended wines like Kumala, which might or might not be a selling point to UK consumers. And according to his website, his wines “reflect the culmination of the lessons I am still learning”, if you would like to sort that sentence out.

Bruce Jack doesn’t just have a story, or values, or a philosophy – Bruce Jack has all three. There are several abstruse thoughts from Bruce Jack on the back label. Some even have a connection to winemaking. “The land has an energy of memory”, and “The real disco is below the soil’s surface”. Others include “Imagination is sanctuary enough.” Sorry?

Of course we’re all buying into concepts of some kinds when we buy a bottle of wine, often to do with heritage, connoisseurship or status. But the more you have to philosophise on your website, the clearer it is that wine itself cannot convey such things as “fairness”, and “humbleness”, and “surfing”.

And sure enough, the wine itself is a perfectly decent Shiraz – steady, straightforward, not over fruity and with a nice touch of bright, peppery spiciness. It’s a red middleweight, not a purple bruiser, and  it will happily take down a herby sausage. I have no complaints.

But it was not the “thrilling experience” which Bruce Jack somewhat ambitiously promises for £6.25. Nor did I get a taste which reflected the fact that Bruce Jack wines “continually interrogate, and expose the folly through our actions, of information from those acting in opposition to our values.” 

Which isn't exactly Russell Bertrand.


Thursday 14 February 2019

Serious Martinis

So while the DIY booze fumes in the darkness (down from one hectic belch every second to a lethargic burp a minute) I decide to try out the pro cocktail making set my mixologist son gave me for Christmas. At the time, he handed it over with many stern injunctions as to the correct use of the various bits and which cocktails were best made with such uncompromising tools. I tried to retain this information but a) I have trouble remembering, among other things, who was The Beatles' producer, so it's pretty much in one ear these days and b) the only drink I really like out of all the confections open to me is a Dry Martini, or its equivalent, a Gin and French, veering towards the latter on account of a liking for French vermouths.

That said, it is a wonderful piece of kit. The mixing vessel is made of an incredibly durable glass with a lattice pattern cut into it for traction; you can clap the stainless steel strainer over the mouth of the vessel and pour single-handed, with one of those eye-boggling metre-long cascades from mixer to glass; there is a long-handled spoon with a special twist in the stem so that, with the correct grip, you can stir the ingredients in the latticed vessel without having to do anything more than merely shift your hand in a gentle sideways to-and-fro; there's is a measure with two sizes built in; there's even a vicious peeler for lemons and other fruit. Put together it has a purposeful solidity that you only find in motor cars from the 1950's or Joseph Conrad's prose.

And what do you know? Some people have come to stay with us and I am going to lay a Martini/Gin and French on them, because they don't have to try and get home afterwards. The gin is Tanqueray; the vermouth, Dolin; the extras are ice and a lemon twist. My son also gave me a lot of advice about how, exactly, to combine the twist with the contents of the glass and indeed, the glass itself (rubbing it around the rim so that the lemon zest reaches the drinker's nose a fraction of a second before the gin fumes; even applying it to the stem of the Martini glass so that the drinker's fingers, too, acquire a hint of playfulness) so I do my best. Holding the long-stemmed spoon between middle and third fingers in the approved style is weirdly satisfying, and, yes, the spoon does rotate unhurriedly, combining iced meltwater, gin and vermouth into a glistening, fragrant liquor, the scent of booze rising deliciously.

I take a couple of tastes to check for strength and quality then pour the precious stuff into some fabulous Martini glasses, also gifted to us and as stylish as the Empire State Building. I do my thing with the lemon twists. It's a kind of perfection - except, have I made enough? The Gin and French looks a tiny bit lost in the conical heaven of the glassware. I've used a single big measure of gin per person, plus a measure of Dolin in a four-to-one ratio. It tastes pretty damn good, but should I have doubled up the amounts? Only snag with that is, if you do get outside a really brimming glassful of basically gin, you, or at least I and people like me, find that speech is a thing of the past and that one's hands have turned into factory reject hands, useful only for pointing and spilling. Answer is obviously to go for 1½ measures of gin per person with French to match. But it doesn't occur to me in time.

As it is we make the most of our Gin and Frenches; getting the benefit without quite getting the full effect. A mood of very slight constraint descends upon us. It's possible that what everyone wanted, in the final analysis, was to get completely shitfaced - and this liberation, a liberation that only a drink like a Gin and French can provide, has been denied us. From which I think I take away the understanding that if I'm going to use my fabulous Martini kit in the future, I'm going to have to step up and make my drinks rhino-stoppingly strong. Otherwise the drama implicit in the act of taking out a cocktail mixer can never be fully realised; the intention is never properly consummated. And we all know what that leads to.


Thursday 7 February 2019

Gentleman winemaker me

I’m sure it wasn’t like this for Baron Eric de Rothschild.

For some reason, I have gone along with CJ’s crackpot idea of making our own wines. It is one thing for him to try and emulate or even better the bottom-shelf bargain wines that he buys; quite another for me to try and echo the classier products that I pursue.

But then I considered the respect I have for the makers of my wines. Perhaps becoming a winemaker, albeit a modest one, could be a means of claiming first-name terms with the likes of “fellow winemaker” (as I could rightfully call him) Eric. Or with Aubert at the Domaine de la Romanée Conti. I might acquire the urbanity of someone like Leoville-Barton’s distinguished Anthony Barton. I certainly echo his philosophy that “I don’t make investment wines”. No indeed, not in my kitchen.

I had kept quiet at home about this mad plan of CJ’s, and hidden the equipment, and a hoard of my empty bottles, in the cellar,. I anticipated an unfavourable reaction from Mrs K to the idea of liquids fermenting around the house (or, as I must begin to call it, the proprieté). She did, it emerged, wonder why our recycling had been uncharacteristically light on bottles. But she seemed remarkably relaxed when I broached the plan, her first and only real anxiety being that she might have to taste the results.

And so it begins, although I remain disdainful of CJ’s use of the term “Home Brew”, just as I am troubled by purchasing wine-making equipment from a company called Lovebrewing. This is vinification, surely,

I, too, watch the briskly enthusiastic brewlover Richard making wine in his t-shirt and jeans. He does not reflect my vision of an urbane gentleman winemaker. He sports a t-shirt from an outdoor apparel company, and stubble unrelated to a designer. Unlike CJ I do not become fixated by the contents of his washing machine, but I do notice that the on-screen caption suggests he is “sterlising” (sic), an attention to detail on my part which I hope will prove beneficial.

For I am nothing if not a stickler for detail when it comes to recipes. I am indeed (as I explained to Julian Barnes when he gave us our André Simon Award, a Pedant In The Kitchen.  So I am concerned that the airlock I have been sent has a yellow cap, and not, as referred to in the accompanying instructions, red. This is the kind of thing which can lead to disaster.

Anyway, I plump for making cabernet sauvignon, as close as I can get to my beloved claret. With increasing confidence I wield the likes of hydrometer and airlock. I sterilise, and mix, and test. (Well, do you know the exact temperature of the hot water from your tap? Well, do you?) I mix in oak chips, because I’m short on barrels.

And finally I have a demijohn of foaming liquid, coloured a threatening purple, which I stash carefully away. I have somewhat gratifying stains of grape juice on my hands, although before Mrs K returns I carefully clean the somewhat less gratifying stains of grape juice off the kitchen surfaces.

I managed to persuade Mrs K to allow the wine to ferment in the currently warmest place in the house, where we dry our laundry – but in order to protect the surroundings, I must keep my demijohn inside a binliner, inside a bucket. Is that really necessary? Well, the instructions say that if fermentation becomes “quite lively”, then “liquid can be forced out of the airlock and end up decorating your floor and walls!”. Not a situation Eric probably had to deal with – or worse, explain to his wife.

Now, the waiting begins. But at least there is one aspect of this where I feel I may have gained ground over CJ. I have come up with a suitable name for my wine (no, no, you’ll have to wait) and have begun designing an appropriate label. This at least may have the sophistication, the style, which I aim for in the wines that I enjoy. Whether the wine itself will live up to that, time will tell.