Thursday 26 September 2019


So I'm reading PK's ruminations on champagne last week and this at once sets me thinking about soda syphons. I mean, in my world, champagne gets drunk about as often as liquid nitrogen, given our preference for cheap sparkling knock-offs at anything from half to a third the price of the serious stuff - but, on the other hand, we do get through a huge amount of fizzy water, so much so that what we spend on bottled water we very likely ought to save by drinking from the tap instead, using the funds released thereby to pay for champagne.

Is this a problem? If so, what to do? Go back a couple of generations and you find an answer in the form of the soda syphon. My Pa always had a couple stashed in the drinks cabinet - immense, heavy ribbed, reinforced glass things supplied by Schweppes (maker's name extravagantly emblazoned on the side) with proper levers to dispense the contents in a barely-governable torrent. Part of his Saturday morning ritual involved a trip down to the off-licence to exchange the spent syphons for full ones. This is what we did, back then: we got milk, orange juice and fizzy water in glass bottles which were then recycled by the businesses which owned them. Apart from the petrol used by my Pa in the drive to the offie (two-and-a-half-mile round trip) the system was as ecologically sound as hell.

Time to get back to something approaching this model? Given that Schweppes, as far as I'm aware, don't do the refillable syphons any more, what about getting a fizzy water maker? There's millions out there: I mean, this thing from Grohe, I'm not making it up, a built-in sparkling water chiller/dispenser; or this, at just over one-thirtieth of the cost of the Grohe and resembling the soda syphons we all know and respect; and, of course, everything in between. Why not buy something affordable and effective and present it as a fait accompli to my wife? And put an end to financial ruin as well as all those planet-killing plastic empties?

Immediately, however, I can think of three objections. First, the business of making some sparkling water as opposed to opening a bottle involves a pitiful amount of labour, all things considered, but I am also pitifully lazy, so no. Secondly - and I burn with shame to admit it - in the days when my Pa was tending his Schweppes bottles, there was a tacit understanding in our house that it was somehow slightly common to use Sparklets-type DIY soda syphons. I never really found out why it was common - maybe it was the hint of manual labour involved instead of getting a paid underling to do the dirty work; maybe it was the jazzy brushed steel exterior of the Sparklets bottle, turning the sitting-room chimerically into the guest lounge of a businessman's hotel somewhere around Hounslow, which did the damage - either way, I never knew. But the prejudice lingers. I just can't treat the things with any degree of conviction.

But third - and more significant than either of these - is London's tapwater. I mean, I love London's tapwater, it's a great water for all everyday use, especially washing the car or having a bath in, but it does taste like a swimming pool. The thought of carbonating it before chucking it into the evening whisky makes my gorge rise. That's why we spend something equivalent to the revenue of a county the size of Hampshire on the ready-made embottled sort. And the idea that we might buy sweet-tasting still water, in bottles, just to carbonate it ourselves makes no sense because (a) there's no real ecological or cost benefit, given the number of plastic bottles we'd be consuming and (b) we can't be arsed (see above).

All that said, I can see a day coming, fairly soon, when, in order to get a fresh bottle of sparkling water we will first have to present an empty, used one (probably made of glass) as a key. Same for marmalade, window cleaner and aftershave, and why not? That, or a return to the old days of milk deliveries, but with a float tinkling around with Perrier, San Pellegrino and Badoit, dropping it off at the front door in exchange for the empties. Which, now I think about it, sounds so London middle-class it's not even funny.


Thursday 19 September 2019

Drinking champagne alone

Why do we rarely drink a bottle of champagne alone? Could it be that champagne is quintessentially social, an experience like kissing, which has to be shared in order to be properly enjoyed?

It can’t simply be the cost – I would think it a personal treat if I drank by myself a bottle of good claret or white Burgundy costing the same as a bottle of champagne. And can any drink really be reserved for “special occasions”? – in which case surely the drinking of it should make any occasion special by default.

There are of course famous quotes about drinking champagne at every possible opportunity. In victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it, and so on. That line of Coco Chanel’s: “I only drink champagne on two occasions – when I am in love with a Nazi, and when I am not.” (She may not actually have mentioned the collaboration bit.)

But drinking champagne by yourself somehow suggests decadence, indulgence, an unacceptable sort of wealthy languor. So what actually happens if you detach it from its image, and drink it alone as you would any other wine?

Only one way to find out. Mrs K was going to a Do, an awards event where she might well drink fizzy in both social and celebratory contexts. So as I will be alone, I decide that instead of my usual everyday red or white, I will try drinking champagne, alone, thoughout the evening. It already feels weird.

Lurking in the cellar I find a bottle, which must have been brought by a guest but stashed,  because its journey had rendered it either too warm to drink, or too Elvis. (All shook up.)

It’s surprising how odd it feels to open a bottle of sparkling wine with no-one else around. No-one to “Ooh!” and “Ah!”. And no-one to appreciate my opening technique, avoiding a loud pop and wasteful spume by opening it like a skilled sommelier, with only the gentle hiss of a duchess breaking wind,

(Although, as I have got older, I find I am less impressed by the skill of the sommelier and more by the technique of the duchess.)

However, like the tree which falls when there is no-one listening, there is definitely a sense of deflation when no-one witnesses my opening.

Should I get down a single champagne glass? I wouldn’t get down the best glasses for a weekday bottle of red; but again, the rituals of champagne are hardwired, like some kind of vinous firmware. I climb a stepladder and retrieve a single flute.

Things begin well with a glass while I cook. Perhaps it's the collective unconscious of years of cooking for get-togethers, making me think that tonight must be a special occasion. Or perhaps it's just that I always find cooking is more enjoyable with wine, whether or not it’s in the food.

And it is a reasonably tasty champagne, which I shall describe, as most wine critics describe most champagnes, as “biscuity”, without specifying whether that “biscuit” refers to Rich Teas, Digestives or, for that matter, Jammy Dodgers.

Before now I have certainly carried a pre-dinner glass of fizz through to the table, and drunk it with my starter. But I can’t actually remember drinking sparkling wine with a main course. A champagne flute certainly feels odd in this context; it’s one thing when you’re simply drinking, but when you’re washing down a meal, this glass tube feels slightly absurd. And after a meal, as things begin to settle down, raising a lightweight glass of fizz seems simply inappropriate.

By the end of the evening, I’m afraid the champagne has also become rather sickly. The first mouthful of chilled champagne is surely the best, sparkling as much as it ever will, cold as it can be. But it’s downhill from there on. Unlike a good claret, champagne does not improve in the glass over an evening. It gets sugary. And two hours on, it’s not so much crisp biscuit as soggy Custard Cream.

Clearly no, I am not Sebastian Flyte, nor was meant to be. There are things which are immensely satisfying when pursued alone, which start well and often get better. Like reading. But drinking a bottle of champagne clearly benefits from company. When you can each enjoy those first, fresh glasses from the bottle, and then move on.

A bottle alone? In the end, the experience is mirrored by the final mouthfuls of the champagne itself – just a little bit flat.


Thursday 12 September 2019

En Vacances: Some Burgundy

So we come back from our trip to see our pals in the South of France and France does not disappoint. In fact it goes out of its way to be ultra-obliging and sunny and crammed with delicious food and drink, so much so that, in honour of all that France has done for us, the British, over all the years, I am now going to use as many French loan words and phrases as I can in an act of sincerest homage or even hommage. In practice this means non to creaky Edwardianisms such as amitié amoureuse and faites comme chez vous, but oui to anything else from the last forty-five years. Alors.

Key points in the trip? Number one is when the wife and I are enjoying a quiet tête-à- tête at an eaterie in the almost too wonderful city of Dijon; and as we scan the menu what happens but I fall for a bottle of unmarked white Burgundy, at a price way beyond my usual? Nevertheless, some kind of amour propre overwhelms me and I suggest, in as nuanced a way as I can that holidaying gives me carte blanche to make a pig of myself, so why not? In fact I manage this with such élan - panache, even - that I persuade myself and any bystanders that paying three times my standard rate is a beau geste worth making.

And what do you know? It is. Something arrives in a label-free container and it is white, delicious, full of bourgeois solidity. I strike up a wordless rapport with it tout de suite and instead of feeling hopelessly gauche - my usual state in any French restaurant - after a couple of glasses consider myself not only alarmingly au fait with the wine list but, by sheer good fortune, quite the connoiosseur. My wife, who regards me as an idiot savant at the best of times, just lets me get on with it. Laissez faire rules for a couple of hours.

The sense of bien-être builds, the further south we get. I could write a whole billet-doux to France, just north of Avignon. Leaving behind the architecture, the chic dress boutiques and the teasing bric-à-brac sellers of Dijon, we sink into a world of pure sensual pleasure. A moment of déjà vu assails us as we pass some familar landmarks, but this then acts as a kind of apéritif of memory for things to come. Once we are in the deep South, surrounded by dust, vines, mountains and olive trees, the usual mood has taken over. Plus ça change, I nearly say, à propos of all this loveliness, but don't. By the time we reach our pals, nestling at the foot of Mt Ventoux, I'm drowning in delectable clichés.

The pals, of course, have got savoir-vivre down to a fine art. Everything is utterly comme il faut, but with the lightest of touches. Indeed, the whole place is, with the Rhône valley shimmering in the distant haze, strictly entre nous, borderline magical. Perhaps the most magical thing (and key point number two) being the carafe of rosé which lives in the fridge and which never seems to run out. Every time I peer inside to help myself to a refresher, the wine is brimming. What genre of rosé is this? Vin d'une nuit, apparently, hence its almost non-existent blush. But it wouldn't matter either way. It represents largesse at the highest level, the dernier cri of hospitality.

A few days of this is enough to banish all ennui, to restore one's lost esprit de corps, to achieve, frankly, a renaissance of all one's hopes and ambitions. But what do you know? No sooner have we got the hang of Provençal douceur de vivre than we must clear up the débris of our stay, bid au revoir to this adorable venue, achieve a complete volte-face in our progress and start north again. Our pals wish us bon voyage back to England, where a Parliamentary coup appears to be taking place, where democracy has reached an evil-tempered impasse and the great Brexit débâcle grinds on, all attempts at détente having been thrown out of the window in one protracted and possibly unlawful contretemps. The closer we get to home, the worse our mood gets. We experience a kind of mal de mer long before we even reach the sea. Eventually and en masse, we and a load of other gloomy Brits cross the Channel in a ferry piled high with old coffee cups.

You have to hand it to the French: when they get it right, they really get it right. I only hope we can reprise our trip next year and continue the va-et-vient of Anglo-French tourism, passports, no-deal Brexit and French goodwill permitting. If not, then quel cauchemar!


Thursday 5 September 2019

Give me a vowel…give me a wine

Vivolo. Ethereo. Incanta. Primavara. Alluria. They could be the names of pharmaceuticals. Or bitcoin apps. In fact, they’re wines.

They’re not in the language of their origin; in fact some of them don’t seem to be in any language at all. They sound as artificial as Quibi, Consignia or Aviva. Vivendi is a media conglomerate; Vivolo is a Pinot Grigio. Really, what’s the difference?

Does Avior sound to you like an Argentinian Malbec? Or a Venezuelan airline? Actually, it’s both.

I have given up trying to understand the “names” of modern commodities like cars. Never mind the Cordia, Tredia and Starion; how am I expected to know what differentiates a “Series 3” from a “Series 5”? They’re cars, not box sets.

How do I tell a Sony MDR-Z7M2 from a Sony DSC-H400? Oh, one’s a pair of headphones and the other’s a camera.

But once upon a time, you knew where you stood with wine labels. In fact, the label probably told you where the winemaker stood. A wine would have a name like Le Vieux Chateau Guibeau, from which one of those knowledgeable people we call “wine buffs” would conclude that it was probably French.

Then along came New World wines from places like Australia, California and South Africa where they labelled wines in English. Sometimes their name would identify the actual place where the wine had come from, but often the wines were labelled with either invented but evocative locations (Bays, Valleys, Creeks etc) or just concocted, unusual phrases or names.

This has proved so popular that the style been adopted by countries whose native language isn’t English. So Stones and Bones, which could come from anywhere on the planet, actually comes from Portugal. The Waxed Bat is from Argentina. Some time ago, we wrote about a white Bordeaux which transformed its sales by eschewing the Vieux Chateau tradition and caliing itself Stone Rock. And before you know it, you end up with a wine from Moldova calling itself Plum Valley, instead of Valea Perjei.

Anyone would think winemakers were trying to disguise their origins. Andoni is a sparkling white which sounds vaguely Italian, in the same manner as Cornetto. It is in fact from Hungary. Solevari and Primavara are from Romania; and so is Incanta.

And we are back again at these concocted, nothing names, suggesting no particular country of origin, no authenticity, no typicity – but which will presumably sell around the world. Incanta; Vivolo; Manera; Beneficio; Velea. It’s a bit like going to TK Maxx, where labels sound vaguely like a name you might have heard of, but have actually been invented – by TK Maxx.

Alpha Zeta is a Venetian Chardonnay. Because…?. 

Alluria is an organic pinot grigio which sounds like a cheap seductive fragrance (although for all I know it tastes like one).

And Ethereo could be anything from a chill-out album to a mattress. It is in fact a Galician Albarino. The importers say of its winemaker that “You can taste his passion for the region”, a passion that clearly doesn’t extend to putting anything Galician into its name.

Completely artificial, concocted with no regard for authenticity, history, origin or typicity. If those are their names… what might that say about the wines?