Thursday 28 November 2019

Something not quite riot...

Ah, pinot noir. The wine described with adjectives such as “elegant”, “delicate” and “graceful”. The “thin-skinned, temperamental” grape loved by Miles in the movie Sideways. The grape of red Burgundy. And who was the pretentious fellow who once described a fine example of a Burgundy as tasting “like choral evensong”? Oh, that was me.

So where does “ugliness” fit into this? Here, I’m afraid; a Pinot Noir with an ugly name, an ugly label; and, if the Oxford definition of “ugly” as “unpleasing or repulsive to sight or hearing” can be extended to the other senses, then an ugly flavour too.

There are, I suppose, wines which might conceivably have some kind of association with a riot. A bruiser of a shiraz, perhaps, up for a fight. Something with a high enough alcohol content to suffice for comrade Molotov. Or one of those nasty acidic wines whose very fumes have the room-clearing potential of tear gas.

None of these qualities would seem particularly strong selling points. A Shiraz Cosh, anyone? Burnt-out Bordeaux? Cabernet Sauvignon ‘CS’ Gas? And… a Pinot Riot?

Well. There are rowdy, aggressive Pinot Noir drinkers – like the “roomful of buzzed alpha males” which Jay McInerney wrote about. But they bray and brag about the cost of the wines they drink, and are unlikely to trouble the supermarket shelves for this £7 trifle. And as McInerney also writes, “The new generation of Pinotphiles favour adjectives like “restraint” and “delicacy”.

So the very name, Pinot Riot, is something of an oxymoron. Pinot Noir is simply not a loud, boisterous wine.

And the label description contains a further contradiction in terms. This wine supposedly offers “an abundance of intense yet delicate flavours”. It makes you wonder about their understanding of the terms “intense” and “delicate”. Perhaps they like colours which are black yet white.

Nothing restrained or delicate about their label, either. A hideous melange, reminiscent only of a particularly ugly BBC2 ident. Are they dinosaurs? Monsters? Eyeballs in snot? Would anyone want this on their table? Would anyone want this in their house?

But Sediment took it in, and drank it, so that you wouldn’t have to. A rubbery bouquet heralds an astringent, bitter flavour – but thin, weedy, a shallow, diluted experience. Not, by any measure, a riot of flavours. And certainly not a soaring choral evensong; more a muted cough. By halfway through the first glass there is little but alcohol left; no bouquet, no fruit, no point. And, as they themselves state on their label, no future.

Of course the know-it-alls will say that you can’t possibly produce a good Pinot Noir for £7 a bottle. And they are probably right. But think, on the other hand, of the know-nothings. For they may buy and drink this, and believe that they have tasted Pinot Noir. Once, and probably never again.

If the apocalypse comes, and people are stripping the shops of essentials, I don’t think they’ll be too picky between cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. They certainly won’t be rioting to get their hands on this. Only, perhaps, to get their money back.


Thursday 21 November 2019


So the wife and I (mostly the wife, to be honest) are having a bit of a party, scores of superannuated guests invited, and I have been put in charge of the wine. This is not as much fun as you might imagine.

First off, how much do we get in, sparkling and still combined? The estimates we're currently using give us something like one and a third bottles per head. Either this is not nearly enough, or way too much. If I drink a whole bottle of wine in the course of a few hours, I generally feel fairly lit up. Is everyone else going to want to feel the same way? Quite a few guests will be driving, so that cuts them down to a mere couple of glasses, I would have thought. A few more won't want to drink much anyway. This then bumps up the possible input, for the hardened boozers, to something like a bottle and a half, which sounds quite a lot. On the other hand, the last thing we want is to run out. Or perhaps we do, to act as a heavy-handed way of marking the end of the fun? Okay, so the numbers stand, for now.

Secondly, where to get it? As it happens, Sainsbury were doing a good price on some champagne a couple of weels ago, so I ordered three cases online, went to pick them up two days later, found that they only had one case and had made up the rest of the order with Prosecco and anything else lying about. So I took the champagne, left the filler, and where did I turn? Majestic. Yes, Majestic have been getting some mixed publicity recently and we've drivelled on about their apparent loss of mojo, but all I can think of now is that they do wine, wine is what they do, I want several cases of wine, the wine I actually want, not the wine left lying around in the stockroom and so, helplessly, guiltily, I gravitate to Majestic and immediately pick up some more cheapo champagne to make up the deficit.

While I'm there, the still white chooses itself (a basic Picpoul de Pinet, really rather delicious) but the red is more of a challenge. I grab a bottle of generic Spanish red for sampling purposes, mainly because it calls itself the guv'nor, which I think is kind of amusing; only it turns out the guv'nor tastes like the floor of a hardware shop, so back I go for more red samples, ending up with a Tempranillo, a Malbec and a Barbera D'Asti, all within the price range.

A couple of days of intensive sampling then pass, at the end of which I feel ill and slightly unhinged. I am so full of cheap drink that If I lean over, red wine starts to form a puddle in my ear. Also, I'm getting some bad interference from the copy on the backs of the bottles. I know this is the kind of thing PK is always ranting about, but the beastly guv'nor does itself no favours (not that it could, anyway) by announcing, just above the alcohol content, that the guv'nor rules his establishment with confident poise, yet his disarming politeness conveys a sense of wariness. He is not a man to be trifled with. The Malbec, on the other hand - Argentinian, who knew? - turns out to be called Las Maletas - the suitcases - complete with a Hanna-Barbera-themed cartoon on the front of a man holding a suitcase over his head and an injunction to Pack your suitcase, grab your coat and travel the length and breadth of Argentina via these flavourful wines, on the back, again just above the alcohol content. The wrongness of all this still haunts me.

In the end I go for the Tempranillo, not least because it comes in a bottle with a label and not much else; also because it stays down, not something I can otherwise guarantee. So I'm done! All I have to do now is put the order in and hope that it's delivered at the right time and to the right place by a business whose existence is predicated on the idea that it can deliver the correct wines to a given address on a given day.

And then I have to sort out the music. I'm thinking The Crystals, The Shangri-Las and Betty Everett. And possibly Bernard Hermann and the Northern Dance Orchestra, although this might change. I mean, there's still time, now that the booze is under control.


Thursday 14 November 2019

Can I help you, sir?

“Hello there! I wanted a bottle of wine, about twelve pounds or so, for a dinner party…” 

“And there’s just so much to take in, on the internet and so on, isn’t there sir? Well, I think we’re ‘up to speed’ with all of it, as they say,… A formal dinner party? As opposed to a kitchen supper?”

“Well, just a few friends…”

“When and where, sir?”

“Does that matter? I mean, I…”

“Oh yes, sir, I mean this weekend, next weekend…? We track the local weather, you see, because atmospheric pressure and humidity can alter flavour perception.”


“Oh yes, sir! Makes a difference!  But if you’re travelling…”

“Oh, it’s local, I’m local, I just don’t usually come in here, only I wanted to get something decent for this dinner.”

“Of course, sir. Serious matter. Serious matter. Before I make so bold as to suggest some wine, do you have the menu with you? Our pairing advice is based on the dishes’ fattiness, acidity and so on, and of course it’s the sauces that matter, not the meat or fish itself…”

“Well, my wife…”

“And what will be playing, sir – classical, rock, jazz…?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Your background music, sir. Rhythm, pitch, articulation, it all alters the taste, you know. Oh yes."

“I haven’t…”

“And are you decanting, sir?  Aerating?  Or hyper-decanting?  How far ahead of the meal? Did you bring your timetable with you, sir? And how will you be maintaining the temperature? Are you centrally-heated? What is your room temperature?

“Look, I don’t know that much about wine…”

“Oh, forgive me, sir, then I should have asked, do you actually possess a corkscrew? Because we do have bottles I can offer you with screwcaps. But there’s a wealth of advice on how to remove corks by other methods, using a shoe, or a knife, or a hammer, if you have any of those. Or if you’d rather, we can sell you a corkscrew? Waiter’s Friend? Screwpull? Pronged?”

“I’m not…”

“And glasses, sir?”

“I’m okay for glasses, thank you.”

“No, what shape, sir? Makes a difference!  And what kind? Riedel, Zalto? I can see you’re what Jancis Robinson describes as ‘big-nosed’.”

I beg your pardon??”

Her glasses are designed to accommodate the big-nosed, sir. And they’re ‘gossamer-thin’. ‘Gossamer-thin’, sir. ‘Once you have experienced this delicacy,’ as she says, ‘you really can't go back.’” 

“Well I can, actually. Back to the supermarket. Thank you.”

“Oh dear, sir. Well, perhaps one day…” 

(The door closes.) “’Twelve pounds’???”


Thursday 7 November 2019


So, mead: I mean, you can't really call it a divisive drink because nobody drinks it, therefore there's no-one to be divided by it. It's just that stuff you sometimes find in heritage gift shops which sometimes seems like a good idea for an elderly relative but more often not, and anyway, have you ever tasted it? It seems familiar enough while at the same time being unknown. I feel sure that I must have drunk it, I can feel the stuff coating the inside of my mouth, honey, yes, that's what it's made from, maybe a faint alcoholic rasp at the back, it's up there with egg nog as something you never want to tangle with unless you've decided to live in a cave in the Welsh Marches. Perhaps it's good to steep fruit in? If you like your fruit almost inedibly sugary? The stuff stopped being an everyday drink at the time of Beowulf, surely.

But here we are in 2019 and what do you know but I find myself sitting at a bar in Peckham Rye, where a good many hipsters have taken root, tasting 21st Century mead with its creator, Tom Gosnell, who - following an epiphany a few years back in the US, where mead is big, or bigger than it is here, anyway - is determined to get mead back on our tables, where it belongs. Seriously. His meadery - I'm not making this word up - is a mile away and he sources as many of his ingredients locally as he can. Not only that, but he offers a whole range of mead sensations, none of them in the least like what I think mead might be.

We actually start with several examples of mead-in-a-can, which is a funkier, more contemporary kind of mead done as a long drink, plenty of sparkle, only 4%, so the same as a glass of beer but evidently not, especially in the form of Gosnells Hibiscus Mead and I'm not making this up, either. Yes, we are in SE15, but Hibiscus? Only, guess what? It's really not bad. Comes out of the can a deep blush colour, looks a bit like a Kir Royale, sits there quite confidently in the glass, the honey undertow (you can't escape it, it's still mead, even if there is plenty of water mixed in) working with the drier hibiscus additions and the fizz to stop your palate from furring over completely. Yes, it's weirdly stimulating and refreshing. Indeed I'm so startled that all I can do is sit there saying Well I'll be damned under my breath. I don't even want to give my glass up when we move on to the next round of beverages.

These, by way of contrast, are your more classic mead stylings, presented in a smart glass bottle, not a can, and once again I am caught on the hop. Two in particular: Gosnells Finsbury Mead (5.5%) and Gosnells Saffron Walden Mead (7.5%) leave me writing Rather fantastic in my tasting notes, and Forget you're drinking mead. The Finsbury Mead actually uses honey from Finsbury, just up the road, and I start to entertain the slightly hallucinatory idea that I'm drinking the essence of London, a concept I rather like. We're talking about something slightly sterner than the canned stuff, not dry exactly, but not a Sauternes either. Also with a hint of p├ętillant. Someone suggests that it would go well with a blue cheese. I nod, as if what I think might matter.

And this mood returns, not surprisingly, with the Gosnells Hackney Mead (a full-on 9%) which Tom Gosnell describes as Telling the story of the summer which the bees have experienced. I don't even do a double-take at this. We're not in wine territory, nor are we in craft beer or cider country, although the latter might be this kind of mead's nearest rival, what with the pastoral overtones and a sense of reaching back into a shared past. Complex, I manage to write down. Still, I feel I'm doing well to achieve as much as that. Complex is what this whole thing is: not just the drink itself but the need to reclassify this kind of mead as something better than a mere comedy beverage. It is a whole new taste and one which will take some processing. We finish up and I leave Peckham Rye, fuddled and yet, somehow, slightly sharpened.

Two points remain: Tom Gosnell himself is in a very cheerful mood, not least because he's just inked deals to supply his product to the United States and Korea, two countries with a confirmed taste for the new mead; and if you want to buy some from the Gosnells website, it's £25 for a 75cl bottle of the Saffron Walden variety. Which suggests to me that now might be a good time to invest in some bees, especially if you live in Hackney.