Thursday 25 April 2019


So our English pals with the to-die-for place in the South of France are telling us how they were not that long ago invited round for dinner by some nearby French pals and how, having arrived, they found some other French people there and it was all very pleasant except for the fact that one other French couple was stuck en route somewhere so the meal would be delayed: by two hours, in fact, as the stuck people (where were they coming from? Dortmund?) had the greatest conceivable difficulty in unsticking themselves; and when they finally arrived offered no apology, merely a complaint.

Still. You might think that those present would have passed the time by having a few drinks, worrying about Brexit, generally unbuttoning themselves, to the extent that two hours in they'd be quite well lit up. But no. No wines or other alcoholic beverages were served until the laggards had actually shown. Two hours of sitting around, making small talk, neither eating nor drinking. The event was so formal, so rulebound, that nothing could happen, like a wedding or a coronation, until all the participants were present.

How can this be? The French love to drink. They've long been a world leader in liver cirrhosis. The long lunch with two bottles of wine and a digestif. The Calvados followed by a morning spent operating dangerous farming machinery or mining a quarry. The taxi driver haloed by beer fumes. How can this be?

Well, the pals say, that's what the uptight French middle classes do these days. They don't hit the sauce like they used to. And now that this point is out in the open, it occurs to me that, yes, I have been to one or two unnervingly chaste French encounters, where the booze has flowed so sluggishly it might as well not have been there. Dinner with some French semi-family semi-friends a couple of years back saw five adults seated around a single bottle of neither-here-nor-there Côtes du Rhône for an eternity, while many claims were made concerning the superiority of French society, listlessly rebutted by us Brits, all the while staring at this awful, feeble, yet irreplaceable, bottle. We had a strong sense that the bottle, in its uniqueness and finality, was not meant to be drunk at all but was only there to tell us something about the protocols of French conviviality, a symbol of pure culture more than anything else. Long evening.

Or, a very different setting - the residence of the French Ambassador in London (big gaff near Kensington Palace) - where I'd been asked to swell the numbers for an acquaintance getting an award from the French Government. Yes, we had Monsieur l'Ambassadeur himself and, yes, we had a couple of ludicrous footmen with sashes who stood to attention in order to demonstrate that truly we were witnessing the French State, but: even though it was a celebration, a time of congratulations, we had nothing to drink. For an hour or so we milled around, listened to the speeches (one honouring, one accepting), stared out of the windows, got more and more parched and disconsolate, until, just when we were thinking of packing up and going home, some butlers appeared, holding tiny trays bearing tiny glasses of what turned out to be completely horrible red wine. These butlers moved among us with painful slowness, distributing the drink before disappearing for a Gallic age, then re-emerging, lethargically dishing out some more of the warm, filthy grog, disappearing again, and on and on, until everyone had been given their minute token of France's bounty and we could finally slope off to get a proper drink.

As usual, when thinking about these things, l end up wondering, is it me or is it them? Have the French always been this chary or is it merely that I've become such a slavering toper over the years that what once seemed perfectly proper now looks niggardly? Is it just a Brit thing? Are we the odd ones out, yet again? Very possibly.

Except that I also remember how some German family pals once had us round for dinner, beginning the evening with a bottle of sparkling demi-sec and a huge cream cake, all of which we had to consume before getting stuck into the actual dinner of sausages and potatoes and whatnot. In their defence, they did look a bit apprehensive while we all sat there around the coffee table, eating the pudding course at six in the evening, but they made us do it. On the other hand, the next time we ate there they gave us a full-on barbecue with lashings of delicious Reinheitsgebot beer, so things make a kind of sense, sometimes. But who's got it right? Lashings of booze Brits or massively uptight French? What does hospitality mean? A sense of correctness or a sense of abundance? And I haven't even got onto the Americans.


Tuesday 16 April 2019

A matter of size

A study of wine glass capacity through the ages has only just come to my attention. Published by the BMJ, perhaps it has only just come to my attention because the original study came out at a Christmas time, when I had possibly consumed too many large glasses to notice it.

“Wine glass capacity in England,” they report, “has increased, from a mean 66 ml in 1700 to 449 ml in 2017.”

(The term “mean” is being used here in a mathematical sense, although it would indeed seem appropriate to refer to a glass holding 66ml of wine as mean. In fact, downright miserly.)

My father-in-law deploys a battalion of similarly tiny crystal glasses on his dining table, which are beautiful but completely impractical. I can accept a tiny glass for grappa, or a similar digestif – but not, surely, for wine? Now I wonder if he has been preserving a tradition, since glasses seem from this study to have been less than 140ml when his Pall Mall club was founded.

The BMJ study is not particularly interested in why glass sizes have increased. The study acknowledges “changes in several factors including price, technology, societal wealth, and wine appreciation.” You could sum it up by saying that glass sizes increased because they could.

No, being the BMJ, the study is really interested in the killjoy notion that, if you take people back to smaller glasses, they will consume less wine. 

“Studying wine glasses’ capacity over time,” say the authors, “is an initial step in considering, firstly, whether any changes in their size may have contributed to the steep rise in wine drinking seen in the past few decades and, secondly, whether reducing wine glass size may help cut consumption.”

And the prospect of this relies upon something they grandly call “the unit bias heuristic” – the idea that you feel you have had “a slice of cake” or “a glass of wine”, no matter how large (or small) the slice or the glass may be.

Well. I can only think of those trendy little coloured macaroons – sorry, macarons – from places like Ladurée. You know the ones; one less O in the spelling, one more 0 on the price.

I do not feel I have “had a macaroon” when I have had one of those, because a macaroon is supposed to be something the size of a saucer, not a coat button. And when I have a small glass of wine, I think yes, that tasting sample was fine, can I have the drink now please?

The tiny glasses on my father-in-law’s table do not decrease consumption, because his son and I are determined to make the most of the lovely clarets that are brought to it. We are not embarrassed to refill our glasses after each sip, or to keep the bottle at our end of the table in order to do so, transgressing proper dinner table behaviour as we must. But we do lament the way it hinders our proper appreciation of the wine.

“Larger wine glasses,” the BMJ admit, “can also increase the pleasure from drinking wine.” I think we know that wine served in larger glasses is more enjoyable, because the wine can aerate, the bouquet has more of a chance to circulate, and your nose can get into the glass to appreciate it.

The BMJ worry that this “may in turn increase the desire to drink more.” But if you make wine a less enjoyable experience, will consumption actually fall? Not if you judge by the mass-market popularity of terrible wine.

In fact, the opposite can surely be argued. The better the wine in our glass, on the whole, the less we drink of it. The more intense and powerful the experience, the more you savour and prolong it. So there is surely an argument that, by enhancing the wine experience with a larger glass, the less you will actually consume.

Do you pour more wine into a larger glass? Just because it takes more, doesn’t mean that you fill it. Not just to allow air to circulate, and enhance the aeration and bouquet; but because there’s something vulgar about an overfilled glass. And the greater the size of the glass, the greater the potential for vulgarity.

My magnificent Riedel sommelier glass  is the size of a small coconut, and would actually contain an entire bottle. Needless to say, it has never done so.

And as my brother-in-law and I panic at the thought of the tiny fractions of a bottle we are consuming, and constantly refill our little glasses, there’s even an argument that we might be drinking more than if we were slowly swirling and savouring the wine in larger glasses.

At the end of the day, this is why most serious wine drinkers talk in terms of bottles, rather than glasses. Not because we are necessarily in the habit of drinking wine by the bottle ourselves – but because we now acknowledge its widely accepted 75cl measure. So we talk of drinking half a bottle with supper, or sharing a half-bottle with lunch, or ordering a bottle between friends. 

There is no such measure as “a glass”; it is at best a euphemism. And at worst, mean.


Thursday 11 April 2019

Plain Man's Guide

So a pal of mine has very kindly given me a copy of Raymond Postgate's The Plain Man's Guide To Wine,1959 edition, which he found in a second-hand bookshop; generosity of the highest kind.

First of all it needs to be said that this slim (135 pages) volume, despite being sixty years behind the times, tells you just about everything you need to know about just about everything. Open it at random and the wisdom leaps out at you:

- The first rule for a wine drinker is: 'Drink what you like'
- Pour the wine, steadily and not splashily, into the type of glass named
- Ugly as only French provincial houses can be
- Most of them...require highly-seasoned food like gorgonzola, or spaghetti rich with garlic and olive oil
- Some bottles have the names of grapes on them

I could go on. Clearly, the main themes are that you should drink what you like, how you like, pouring steadily and avoiding gorgonzola; which actually means that you should drink what Raymond Postgate thinks you should drink; which means mostly French, plus some German: 'There is nothing more lovely than a superb burgundy or a first-rate hock'. In fact his admiration for Hocks, Moselles and Alsace wines - which he lumps together under the old appellation of Rhenish - is such that, 'Not to be mincing about it, they are the finest white wines in the world.' Italy, on the other hand? 'The wines of Italy are plentiful, but on the whole undistinguished.' The Americas and Australia are tipped as ones to watch. There is a lot about port, madeira and marsala. 'You probably should prefer sweet wines to begin with,' he assures the reader, 'because you probably need them. In nearly all countries sugar was rationed during the War - in Great Britain it still was rationed in 1953 - and many people still have a small but definite need for it.' If you want a tanker of port with your cottage pie, then Fay ce que vouldras is the maxim.

Which is all suitably bonkers and divertingly true to its period. Also informative: his account of Bordeaux reds is the first one I've been able to understand after eight years of failure. But then it occurs to me - doesn't the name, Raymond Postgate, sound vaguely familiar?

Well yes; which is the second thing to note. Far from being your average wine dullard, Raymond Postgate had a fairly startling early career as a left-wing, not-especially-wine-drinking firebrand who was arrested during World War I for objecting to military service on political grounds. His family disowned him for that, and for marrying the daughter of George Lansbury. He then wrote a book called Bolshevik Theory and helped to found the British Communist Party; Lenin sent him a signed photograph. After that, he edited the Encyclopædia Britannica, split from Moscow, joined the Home Guard during World War II and eventually founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Food, once the war had ended, with the aim of raising everyday eating standards in post-war Britain.

This was, in fact, a socialist's riposte to lousy British cooking - an appeal to the common man, rather than to the handful of gourmets left over after the fighting stopped. Postgate wanted good food and drink for everyone. Hence The Plain Man's Guide To Wine and indeed, The Good Food Guide, which he started in 1951 and which is still going. Better yet, his generally antsy approach won him no friends in the business, not least because of his insistence on using an army of volunteers rather than paid professionals. He was anti-establishment even when talking about pommes boulangère. And in 1965, Babycham sued him, unsuccessfully, for slagging off their product. That's what I would call a life lived to the full.

All of which means that this copy of The Plain Man's Guide To Wine is not a piece of antiquated booze hackwork, but a social document, a manifesto for a more just, more righteous, to-morrow, penned by someone who helped shape the politics of the last century. When Postgate talks about the beneficial qualities of Tokay ('A proved restorer of virility, and at the same time an increaser of fertility') he's not just saying it to sound impressive. He's saying it because it matters. When he says 'Don't smoke over wines,' he's got the working man's interests at heart in all sorts of ways. When you consider that a previous owner of my copy of The Plain Man's Guide To Wine turned down the corners of no fewer than six pages as aides-memoire, that's a testimony to the book's cogency right there. And when you add to all this the fact that his son, Oliver Postgate, was one of the creators of Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss, well: there are no words.


Thursday 4 April 2019

A gentleman winemaker's wine

What is this stylish looking wine? Its visual combination of contemporary style with classic elements seems like a reflection of my very own character. Surely the wine of a gentleman winemaker. And its name…Piqué…why, it sounds like a Gallicisation of its creator – moi.

Yes, having made my own wine over the last eight weeks, it has now been bottled and, as you can see, named and labelled. I have a degree of smug self-satisfaction at having thought of its name, and designed a label, with the added suspicion that CJ will not have bothered with either.

(I was of course worried about emulating those hideous phonetic names drawn from initials, like PeeKay, or SeeJay, which reek of rundown shopfronts and County Court Judgments. But I feel that Piqué offers a more… sophisticated approach.)

Love my house as I do, not even I could call it a chateau. But I can genuinely state that Piqué was indeed mis en bouteille àu propriété. Which also looks better on the label than mis en bouteille dans la salle de bain.

Like so many aspects of this winemaking saga, bottling proved more challenging than I had anticipated. For one thing, when you siphon wine out of a demijohn, the hose swings around like an angry snake, spewing red wine all over the option. You’re trying to simultaneously tilt the demijohn, keep the hose inside a bottle, and pump the, er, pump. I clearly lack that key requirement of a wine bottler – three hands.

Then there was the issue of the sediment. This sat in a corner of the demijohn, an ominous slurry. It proved impossible to reach the last half-bottle or so of wine in the demijohn without sucking the sediment up, so eventually I improvised a filter, using a funnel and a tea strainer. It’s a little trick I would like to say I picked up from the Baron de Rothschild, except that I didn’t.

Somehow, at the end of it all, I had five bottles of wine. Not six, but five. CJ reports exactly the same; we each started with 4.5 litres, but ended up with only five bottles, 3.75 litres. Could all of that have gone in sediment, or even evaporation? The part des anges? I can’t believe that angels would sink to the level of sharing this stuff, even those bored with occupying the head of a pin,

Labelling added a whole new and challenging aspect to the bottling process: in particular, removing the existing labels from a week’s worth – sorry, a fortnight’s worth, hem hem – of emptied bottles. Like stamps and matchbox labels, it was once simple to soak off wine labels in warm water. That was before self-adhesion entered the process. A word from the wise (well, from me); put hot water inside the bottle, which can melt the adhesive on the back of the label.

The label still may not come off in one piece; if it does, you are likely to have a label which remains furiously self-adhesive. And if it does not adhere to self, it may well adhere to anything on which you place it. Another word from the wise (after the event): if there is one thing from which it is harder to remove a self-adhesive label than a bottle, that thing is a table.

But finally, the job was done. Piqué has been bottled in dark shouldered claret bottles, dark sloping Burgundy bottles and pale green screwcap bottles more commonly associated with white wines. This could either be a maneouvre in order to test the market, or a reflection of the variety of wines I was drinking when I needed some empty bottles.

And now it is “maturing”. The bottles are still inside a bucket, in case of explosion, although I have hopefully got beyond that stage. The final chapter will be a comparative tasting against CJ’s efforts. All I can now anticipate is that mine will possibly look better.