Thursday 27 February 2020

A little bird told me…

Modesty would be a wonderful thing in winemakers. They would disappoint fewer people. They might even sell more wine.

I was wandering past the posh wine merchant’s, when I saw that they had a February sale on. With a Spanish dish for supper, I had reconciled myself to Rioja, as you do, when I was drawn to a Monastrell from Jumilla in their window. It was reduced from £10.95, which is 96p the wrong side of maybe, to j£7.95, A price which brought to mind those famous last words “you can’t go wrong”.

So I take home a bottle of Talento – or, as you can see on the label, Talento Talento Talento Talento…Alright! I heard you the first time! If New York, New York was so good they named it twice, what does that imply about repeating Talento nine times?

But then I am intrigued to find this on the back label: “Use what talents you possess, the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.”

Well, this is novel. Winemakers are notorious for not just blowing their own trumpet, but employing a personal brass band. Yet here is a wine seemingly suggesting that it may not be the best.

Althoiugh he is not credited, the quote is from Henry Van Dyke, a US Presbyterian minister and writer popular in the early 20th century. He penned a number of similar platitudinous quotations, such as: “There are two good rules which ought to be written on every heart - never to believe anything bad about anybody unless you positively know it to be true; never to tell even that unless you feel that it is absolutely necessary; and that God is listening. “ Which basically kills stone dead our contemporary birdsong, Twitter.

Yes, we definitely do want a range of “birds” in our wine “woods”. We just don’t need them chirping on about how proud they are of their product, about the proximity of their nest to that of a more celebrated bird, or the fact that they have themselves hatched from an egg laid by a tuneful parent – none of which are guarantees of a lovely song.

But let us not strain the analogy further. The posh wine merchant says from on high that “This is 'Bandol on a budget'”, an enticing phrase given that my Bandol stock is and will probably always be zero, and my budget little more. It’s a “vino ecologico”, which sets off a tremor of nervousness; but I am encouraged by the merchant’s idiosyncratic detection of “a whiff of Eccles cakes”, following which I trust they will baffle other international customers with references to pease pudding, custard creams and spotted dick.

Finally, they say, it “simply sings from the glass” – and we’re back in the woods with the birds.

But actually, it is distinctly tuneful. A dark, purplish colour with a heavy bouquet, leads on to an interesting combination of bright top notes over a weighty, soft base, with that cherryish thing of bitter fruit. It’s too full-on for a guzzler; it’s a very tasty wine to sip and consider. Appropriately, a beaker full of the warm South.

Which, given the way they have lowered my expectation (to say nothing of lowering the price) left me charm’d.

I actually went back and bought a case; they had more bottles in their shop than online. “Quick, said the bird, find them, find them”.


Thursday 20 February 2020


So I'm still feeling kind of peaky to be honest. I mean, this cold. Don't ask. PK and I went to a tasting a week or so back and I couln't taste a thing, let alone enjoy it. And there was some good stuff there, too. Burgundies, or something. I went home early. And now I'm still stuck with the half-life of the damn thing, enough to make me feel as if I've been sleeping rough for the last fortnight. I wish I was making this up.

Then, yesterday, I discover: gin and tomato juice written down in a notebook, by me, as if I meant to make some use of this concept. Gin and tomato juice? Somebody told me about it, I'll swear, but who? And why? Because it's delicious? Or did I find it on the internet and it's awful? In my weakened state, I can't decide. I'm sure I wrote it down because it's a good thing rather than a bad thing. And the more I think about it, the more I feel the certainty that gin and tomato juice is exactly what I need to deal with my cold. Or perhaps the exact opposite. Increasingly these days I find myself in this position.

Quick check, though. Yes, there it is, all over the internet: a Red Snapper - gin and basically tomato juice, and people seem to like it, and then it comes to me - it was in Sip - a book very kindly given to me as Christmas present by my gin-loving pal, along with a bottle of fabulous bespoke gin. Yes, Sip, there it is, sponsored by the famous Sipsmith and offering a hundred gin cocktails with this on page 129: basically a Bloody Mary but with gin, the result being a drink in which the 'Gin's herbaceous qualities and lack of sharpness compared to vodka make this a far superior combination.' I knew there was a reason why I'd singled it out. God, yes. It's just gin, Bloody Mary mix and a bit of pepper. It's beautiful.

I rush out, or rush as fast as my distemper allows me, get some Bloody Mary mix, chuck it in a glass with some gin and an ice cube and feast on the results. It is about the best thing that's happened this month. It is the best thing, by a mile, there's no getting away from the fact. Yes, I watched Winchester '73 last week, and that was fantastic, but that aside, this Red Snapper is so delicious I'm almost hysterical with enjoyment. And tomato! Who doesn't need some tomato from time to time? And gin?

But how could it be anything else? Anything with gin is good. Why do I have to keep reminding myself of this? Every few years, it seems, I wake up noisily to the fact that gin is unbeatable stuff, a drink to make every day seem like New Year's Eve, no, New Year's Eve is usually terrible round our way, some other day redolent of great promise and delight. Gin.

And if a Red Snapper isn't enough, check this out, from elsewhere in Sip:

Lords G & T - gin, tonic and a dash of port in a highball glass, a kind of bruised pink colour, the face of an elderly cricket fan
Gin Spritz - gin, Aperol, champagne. 'This drink cries out for a sunny afternoon' the recipe says, at the very least
Vesper - gin, vodka, Lillet Blanc, Ian Fleming's favourite, I've had that somewhere and it was good
Reverse Martini - gin, four times as much vermouth, lemon peel. Julia Child, the TV chef, drank prodigious amounts of this stuff, reckoning it went better with fish than any white wine. She also claimed, apparently, that the two most important items in a kitchen were steak and gin
Gin and Dubonnet - favourite of the Queen Mother, along with a Gin and It. A simple classic

I could go on. I've got three different flavours of gin on the drinks tray, like The Three Graces, two green and one clear - the clear being the bespoke one which is so bespoke and high-tone I haven't even opened it yet, reckoning both myself and my habits as somehow beneath the gin itself. Of course, if I study Sip a bit harder and invest in some orange bitters and a bottle of triple sec, I might get myself to the point of making some even wilder drinks. I might also be shitfaced much of the time, but I'm not sure this wouldn't be an improvement. I'll ask around, once I'm over this cold.


Thursday 13 February 2020

Real Wine Gums? You can stick 'em.

The last time I tasted wine gums, I hadn’t tasted wine. They were part of a peculiarly English route to drinking alcohol which, instead of the watered-down wine offered to French children, began here with wine gums. You chose one of the supposedly grown-up flavours, and then tottered around for a second or two pretending to be drunk. Not, as I recall, pretending to be a wine connoisseur. 

Wine gums were later followed by those hideous chocolate liqueurs at Christmas, a vile combination of cheap chocolate, with a sugar shell inside, enclosing a dribble of nasty sweet liqueur. Somehow as children we believed these noxious sweet items were somehow “drinking”. From which it was then a painful route through shandy via cream sherry to Southern Comfort (Southern Comfort!) to actual, discerning adult drinking. And it all started with wine gums.

But of course, there was famously no wine in Maynard’s wine gums. The confectionery business had been founded by Charles Riley Maynard, a strict Methodist, who was enraged when the gums were created by his son and heir, Charles Gordon Maynard. But the father was persuaded by the fact that the gums contained no actual wine; and Maynards have continued to the present day with that tradition. Or, I suppose, deception.

Yet now, from Amsterdam, comes The Real Wine Gum.  Beautifully boxed, stylishly designed, and described on their website as “edible wine”.

“The Real WINE gum isn't a candy for children,” they say, playing fast and loose with their capitalisation, 'but an "adult luxury happiness'.” Indeed; €7.50 for a cute 50g box is certainly not pocket money. And they describe it within an adult lifestyle. “Everybody recognizes that moment; when you’ve worked hard all day, and can’t wait for that first sip of wine once you get home. That moment can now already take place at work with our Real WINE Gum.” And look – it even resembles a bunch of grapes!

But let’s get one thing clear – there is no actual wine in these “Real” wine gums, either. “We created a wine gum, which actually tastes like wine, but doesn’t contain any alcohol.” So they’re playing similarly fast and loose with their use of the term “real’. And they “actually taste like wine”, eh?

Well, they have a distant, fragrant kind of flavour which, in that way of sweets, you could have told me was grapefruit, lemon or elderflower and I would have believed it. They say on their ingredients that it contains “Chardonnay wine aroma”, and it does have an appropriately faint flavour, in that way of “tasting” a scent on your palate. And there’s a lingering, vaguely medicinal aftertaste, as if you’ve sucked a throat lozenge.

“Adult luxury happiness” I’m not so sure about. I'm not even sure what it is.There’s nothing to object to about their flavour, but a €7.50 bottle of actual Chardonnay would give me a great deal more happiness per se.


The closest Maynard’s equivalent wine gum, “champagne”, is black, yielding a key advantage to the Real WINE Gum which does at least have the colour of a Chardonnay, albeit a fairly flaccid one. But that raises the whole issue of Maynard’s colours; how come both champagne and port are black? Is that why, unlike their wine counterparts, they actually taste the same? And how come “port” is black, but also orange and… green? What is this green port? Or green sherry?

And of course, the taste matches the colour, not the wine. Which also means, no doubt much to the chagrin of the French, that “claret” and “burgundy” taste exactly the same. Basically, raspberry. Ish.

Also, the embossing is rubbish; about half of each word is illegible. Perhaps, under some kind of product description edict, they are now trying to play down the wine titles, and pretend that they don’t say champagne, port, sherry, claret or burgundy? Perhaps mine have already been sucked? (Don’t…) Or perhaps this blurring is a sophisticated way of imitating the effect of alcohol, taking the wine gum’s relationship to wine into a new and surreal dimension?

Because it certainly fails to imitate the taste; the “champagne” gum has an almost nutty flavour, with an aftertaste that provides another reminiscence, that of licking postage stamps. And it also now has a spongy, bouncy texture, whereas the gums of my youth were as tough as an eraser.

But a few are embossed simply “MAYNARDS”, which removes any expectation of a wine flavour. And these taste simply of hot asphalt playgrounds, and my go, and chinese burn, and swapsies, and that big boy over there did it, and got you first, and no returns.

Which is why the designer wine gums, in trying to echo the "Real" taste, look and fragrance of wine, have surely missed the point. Wine gums are not meant to taste of wine. They taste of childhood.


Thursday 6 February 2020



9.15: So I've spent the last week wrestling with a cold the size of the Andes, which has meant (among other things) that I've been drinking mostly tea and whisky on account of not being able to taste wine - no hardship, given the stuff I normally consume, in fact I feel slightly better overall for it, apart from the cold - and which, therefore, just about accounts for everything else. You all take care now and be sure to wrap up warm.

9.47: Oh well, yes, there is an ongoing situation looming in the wine rack, but I won't bore you with the details.

9.48: It concerns, if you must know, a bottle of Lambrusco which someone very kindly gave me for Christmas. I mentioned it. There is a problem with it, I won't go on about it, I don't want to be a drag, what with this cold and everything. Just that the PKs, PK and his glamorous missus, came over a couple of weeks back and I thought I'd get this stuff out to go with the sweets & cheeses course, it being, I thought at the time, a sweetish fizzy Lambrusco such that you could eat with sweetish things, which included persimmons as it happened, a fruit PK had never encountered before and made a huge fuss about trying for the first time. I'd even chilled the Lambrusco a bit, for laughs. Open it up, pour a couple of glasses, take a swig and it's dryish, not sweetish. I stare at the label and what do you know? Secco, right there on the label, right where I can see clearly it but have until now failed to. Have you any idea what this tastes like? I mean, it's bad enough sweetish, but dryish? It's like a boiled sweet dissolved in kerosene. It's so bad it ranks down there with the poison we concocted last year, the home-made stuff. I had to throw it away. I couldn't even use it for cooking. I don't want to think about it. I'm done, frankly.

2.33: No, that's it.


11.08: Except, as I said, there's this ongoing situation - there were two bottles of the Lambrusco to start with, now there's one. It's just sitting there. I don't know what to do with it. I hate having a bottle of wine sitting around being undrinkable. I've still got two of the home brews and I find it irksome beyond belief that they're there, waiting for me to have an idea of what to do with them, some crazed inspiration which I know will never come but the possibility of which haunts me. Maybe I should take a run at one of them now, while I've got this cold and can't taste anything? I could try that. But do I want to drink anything that badly? I'm not eighteen.

11.10: I mean, whoever heard of Lambrusco Secco?

11.16: Turns out, quite a few people. Deep, complex and savoury says one commentator; Refreshing and easy to drink says another; Great to pair with fennel-infused sausages says yet another.

11.25: Gorgeously purple crops up, too.

11. 48: Very well. As soon as this cold comes to an end, I'm going to have to man up and open the second bottle, apparently in company with some fennel-infused sausages or, failing that, some charcuterie or, failing that, some spicy Thai cuisine, which sounds dreadful however you approach it. What it adds up to, at any rate, is a precautionary side dish of something - anything - strongly-flavoured, to cope with the horrible guff coming off the Lambrusco. I can't wait.

2.07: So how come PK wasn't onto this when we tried the stuff a couple of weeks back? He's supposed to be the expert. He's always going on about Super Tuscans and for all I know a Lambrusco could be a Super Tuscan, I mean, come on, it's not a million miles away. All right, it is in principle, but you take my point.

2.10: I think the cold's come back.


9.55: It's definitely back. At least, it hasn't gone away.

9. 59: I think I'm giving up wine altogether.

10.03: Unless it's coronavirus, of course.

10.05: Lemsip. Lemsip and whisky, alternating. I could see that. I could see that for the rest of the year, to be honest. Lambrusco Secco! I just don't need the aggravation.