Bear with me. I’m going to compare a wine to a pair of socks. But that's not a tasting note.
My colleague CJ has occasionally purchased a repellent bottle of sub-£5 wine which actually tastes like a pair of old socks. But not me. Oh no.
I was back at the wine shelves of my local Mace. It’s been a long time since my last desperate visit, but it was one of those nights; Mrs K was out, I couldn’t justify opening a decent bottle from the cellar, and the bright lights of the High Road beckoned.
For those who do not know (Good morning, America!), Mace is a franchised convenience store business in the UK, something akin to a 7-Eleven. And along with the usual groceries, they also sell alcohol, their window sticker promoting themselves for “When you want a bottle of the good stuff.”
Thank goodness for the licensing regulations in the UK which mean that a corner shop can sell wine. It’s just the notion of “good stuff” which might be a little contentious. For I later discovered their handy online “guide to selling more wine”, where they observe that “You don’t have to be a master of wine to be the master of a profitable wine range in a convenience store.”
And sure enough, neither of my assistants had the air of an MW about them. One, behind the counter, was having a lively and clearly uninterruptable conversation on his mobile phone; I couldn’t identify the language, but the word ‘passeport’ featured frequently and urgently. The ability to simultaneously conduct a sale and a phone conversation is nowadays a key skill of London’s convenience store assistants. The ability to assist is not.
The other ‘assistant’ is sweeping the floor. Given that he is wearing a taqiyah prayer cap, he is also unlikely to be an MW. When it comes to the wine, I’m clearly on my own.
The store has a surprising number of wines on display, over some half-dozen shelves. I can easily spot the branded, blended rubbish to avoid – the Echo Falls, First Cape, Falling Leaf and Kumala, all coming in at under five or six quid. But the strange thing is that every other bottle I pick up seems to cost £8.99.
Bordeaux? £8.99. New World Cabernet Sauvignon? £8.99. Burgundy? Burgundy?? Go on, hazard a guess - £8.99.
Now perhaps there is some brilliantly astute purchasing going on here. Or, they know that we locals will pay £8.99 for a late-night bottle of red wine and that’s it, regardless. Perhaps they really are all of an identical quality. Or perhaps the price-labelling gun got stuck.
But actually, £8.99 is not that cheap. (Just ask CJ…) For nine quid I expect a decent bottle of wine. And, drawing upon all my encyclopaedic knowledge of wine (hem, hem), there is nothing here which I recognise as decent – let alone “a bottle of the good stuff”.
So the strategy I adopted was this. Forget “the good stuff”, forget the appellations you usually desire, and pick the most modest type of wine possible. Nothing with aspirations of grandeur, nothing trading off a grand heritage, nothing hanging on the coattails of big names and Grand Crus. God knows I trawl the wine merchants of the UK hoping to find decent Bordeaux for under £10, let alone Burgundy, and it’s pretty unlikely to have materialised here, opposite the Pot Noodles. So a minor appellation must be a better bet.
Faugères is a small Languedoc appellation, only created in 1982. Its wine is founded upon the Carignan grape, which can be a bit stern and unforgiving; but Domaine des Pierres Blanches declared itself as a blend with three other varieties.
And then, given it was all I had to go on, there was the label. Obviously not trading on ‘heritage’, if dangerously reminiscent of an IKEA print. Was it naïve to think that, with an image of the wine’s stony origins on the label – and the word schist on the back to describe it – this was a contemporary winemaker who rated their terroir as significant?
Back home, the Carignan nose was rather threateningly light industrial, but after sitting in the glass for a bit, this settled into a soft, fleshy wine; still with rigour around the edges, slightly grippy and chewy, but with some dried fruit notes to add interest. I wouldn’t have drunk it eagerly on its own, but it went perfectly well with my dull, feed-yourself food. A well-made lesser wine, as opposed to a poor imitation of something great; and having seen that UK wine merchant prices are all around £8 a bottle, I don’t think a further 99p was too much extra to pay for the convenience.
Oh yes, the socks. It all reminded me of the chap who, as a teenager, was sent up to town by his mother with money to buy a new pair of shoes. He came back instead with a pair of cashmere socks. His argument was that with the sum he had been given for footwear, he could either have bought a pair of inferior shoes, mere imitations of excellence – or the best socks that money could buy.
See what I mean?