Thursday, 18 May 2017

Bling, bling – it's luxury wine calling

Let us wander into the bling side of the wine market. The side which appears to be aimed at Stan Herbert, the Harry Enfield character who boasted of being “considerably richer than yow”.

Once upon a time, bling was effectively confined to champagne. Absurd brands like the gold-bottled, Jay Z-backed Ace of Spades, served in nightclubs accompanied with fireworks, giving new meaning to the term “sparkling wine”.

Then the attention of some nouveau riche turned to rosé wine. The award-winning Henry Jeffreys recently asked whether we should be drinking ‘yacht rosé’, a category in which producers seemingly compete to produce rosé wine with the least taste for the most money. These pale, “sippable” rosés are then sold in colossal, yacht-scale bottles, like 300cl. Sediment’s answer to Henry’s question is obviously no; partly because the wines are pointless exercises in anaemia, and partly because one cannot elegantly serve wine from a bottle the size of a fire extinguisher. In both senses, tasteless.

Presumably such yacht people buy their wine from Hedonism, the aptly-named Mayfair establishment. Not a wine merchant, you understand, but a wine boutique. Its most expensive item is just above the price of an average house in the UK. Although somehow I don’t think their customers live in average houses.

Hedonism has possibly the only wine website which not only allows you to choose red, white etc, but actually offers a pull-down for “100 points RP”   But they provide few notes – so for the novice with £5000 to spend, there is nothing to help him choose between the Petrus 2009  and the Petrus 1990. Except that one is £4,279.80, and the other £4,998.70. Per bottle.

Is it possible to have a more bling wine website? Well, try visiting Clos19,

This is a website that has just been launched by the luxury group LVMH, who own a number of wines like Cheval Blanc and d’Yquem, and want to market them through a package of luxury lifestyle and “experiences”.

I am lured in by the fact that they have an entire section dedicated to the Art of Hosting. However, their’s is a strange world, in which it seems that both dates and business dinners are conducted in black tie.  Where your soulmate serves you spaghetti bolognese, with white wine. And where, if you're entertaining high-flyers, you naturally choose a wine with "lofty altitude".

(That must be where I’ve been going wrong, serving those lowly wines from sea-level…)

Clos19 also provides the least instructive video I have ever seen on how to clean a glass, without employing any cleaning products, but incorporating a flamboyant little flourish to announce completion. I urge you to watch this video, which lasts less time than it would take me to break a glass let alone clean it.

And then they get down to the nitty-gritty of selling their wines.

On Clos19, Cheval Blanc 2009 is £1,105  But you can get Cheval Blanc 2009 for £750 – at Laithwaite’s. Yes, Laithwaite’s! That’s £355, or more than 30%, cheaper. And when you’re ordering online, no-one can see you save.

That Petrus 2009 at Hedonism? Go to Corney & Barrow, and you can pick it up for £3,202.59. Not exactly cheap, but it’s not £4,279.80, is it? Over £1000 cheaper. A 25% discount; and unlike Sainsbury’s, you don’t even have to buy six bottles to get it.

(And unlike Hedonism, Corney & Barrow actually sounds like a wine merchant, and not a moral failing.)

And for peasants like us, on Clos19, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc is £24. Yes, LVMH own that ubiquitous Cloudy Bay, which they must be embarrassed to see being sold at Tesco and Sainsbury. And at only £21 – that’s 12.5% cheaper. Buy half a dozen and you’ll get another £1 off. And it can’t be long before they knock 25% off six bottles, and you’ll get it for 16 quid or thereabouts.

Of course I realise it would be difficult to go to a supermarket. You know, it’s one of those big buildings on the outskirts? Before the airport? You’d have to wear the gardener’s clothes and, unless you want to discover what the bodywork’s like underneath the paint, go in the nanny’s car rather than take the Ferrari.

But you would get more than 30% off! Don’t these kind of percentages mean anything to the wealthy, unless they’re linked to an equity report? What it must be to have more money than sense.

I wonder for how long, if they continue to shop like this, these customers can remain considerably richer than yow. Remind me; who is it again, who is soon parted from his money?


Thursday, 11 May 2017

DIY Rosé: A Futile Distraction

So the idea of mixing my own rosé from pre-existing reds and whites has taken hold of my imagination to such an extent that nothing will stop me brooding on its possibilities but a serious trial by wine, a spell at the kitchen table with a notepad and a misleading sense of purposeful enquiry. As it happens, I have to hand a bottle of the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc my Bro-in-Law brought back from France, plus a South African Shiraz/Mourvèdre/Viognier mix which I bought on offer, reckoning that it might give me that Rhône Valley sensation, only more reliably and a tiny bit cheaper. Which I suppose it does, and with a full neck-straining 14.5% alcoholic content, so that's good. 

I have also done ten minutes' research into the question of mixing red + white to generate a rosé and find, to my slight chagrin, that it's not necessarily the barbarous mish-mash I took it for but a recognised - not by everybody, naturally - technique for achieving a rosé, if macerating grape skins isn't your thing. The key to a satisfactory rosé blend being to pick the right, harmonious, ingredients before you start, rather than grabbing the nearest two bottles and hoping for the best. Chardonnay and Grenache are tipped as likely candidates, neither of which I currently have. Which then reminds me of some sagacious observations made by LondonPerson a few weeks back on the best way to secure drinkable wine for not much and that maybe I should take his advice before starting; only to reflect that LondonPerson sounds a good deal more organised than I shall ever be, with the result that in the space of three minutes I have come back to my original, uncoordinated white + red and there the matter rests.

So I start with a sip of the white, still holding up very nicely, just to remind myself of what I'm adulterating. Then a seductively transgressive moment in which I replace the white I've just sipped with a splash of red, not more than a ten-to-one ratio, and wait for the ghostly swirls of colour to settle down. Taste-wise? Not much different from the initial white - partly because I have the stuff down at a polar chill, partly because the white is such a fruity take on Sauvignon Blanc that nothing is really going to impact on it - but then, right at the end, maybe, there's a kind of persistent terminal rustiness that wasn't there before?

Only option is to up the red. The drink in the glass now looks like a really bad shaving cut, but on I go. Initially it tastes much as before, only after half a minute the tannins seem to run riot, with the result that at the end of a flavoursome swig my lips are stitched together and my cheeks are hollow enough to mix plaster in. This cannot be right.

It is then and only then that I stop to ask myself, Do I even like rosé enough to want to create an ersatz version? This is clearly a question I should have dealt with some days or even years ago, but it's out in the open now and there is, frankly, no clear answer. Of course I like a nice rosé from time to time, but nice is such an undependable quality in this context that I hesitate to use it, especially since my kind of rosés are, as often as not, not nice at all, but determinedly crappy. In other words, just because something seems like a good idea, doesn't make it a good idea. How many times?

So I take out an as-yet unopened bottle of the stuff to check what rosé is meant to taste like and to remind myself of why I might want to drink it in the first place. Actually, it's a chi-chi Cinsault/Syrah blend which I've been ogling for a week or so in the scurf and neglect of the wine rack and it's not bad in the slightly disappointing rosé way, some air freshener notes, quite well integrated, bit of acidity. Also, it bears no relationship to my DIY stuff, apart from the colour. It is a nice, underwhelming, drink, whereas the home-made stuff is now terrible, there's no getting away from it. It's lousy. In other words, I have just spent half an hour making a bad version of something I only half-like anyway. I also have three open, very slightly-consumed bottles of wine sitting on the kitchen table, which is an authentic waste of space.

Still. Someone's coming over to our place for a meal this evening. He might turn out to be a fan of bad fake upsetting rosé wine and there's my evening's entertainment in one.


Thursday, 4 May 2017

Tesco Champagne v Mouthwash – Go Compare!

What?? Tesco has been selling a Champagne at a lower price than mouthwash, according to the calculations of The Drinks Business. What on earth are they suggesting? Surely Champagne and mouthwash can hardly be mentioned in the same breath, bad or otherwise?

There must be issues here which go beyond mere price alone. And so it falls to Sediment to properly compare the two: Tesco’s £9 a bottle (on offer) Louis Delaunay Champagne; and Listerine, the most famous of mouthwashes. Each with their history and tradition. Each similarly chilled and served.

(NB: if you try this yourself at home, and your wife is anything like Mrs K, you may have to explain why there is a bottle of mouthwash in the fridge. Or champagne in the bathroom.)

In terms of appearance, the Tesco Champagne wins hands down. Louis Delaunay presents all the classic elements of Champagne, from the green glass bottle, the foil and the wire cage, to the traditional typeface and parchment-coloured label. Although, the back label speaks in surprisingly modern colloquial language, of “a lemony fresh wine with white peach flavours and citrus zing”. “Zing”? A common Champenois term, is it, “zing”?

Shrewdly, perhaps, Listerine’s label says nothing of its flavour. But it does convey a lot of information and guidance which might be useful for first-time Champagne drinkers too, such as how much to put in one’s mouth. Indeed, for the £9 Champagne audience, perhaps Tesco might consider something similar to Listerine’s warning, not to “swig from the bottle”?

However convenient for guests, it is hard to imagine putting out a bottle of Listerine, without suggesting that your meal presented some kind of oral hygiene hazard. Whereas the bottle of Louis Delaunay Champagne would grace any dining table. Particularly given the judicious absence from its labels of the word “Tesco”.

The Listerine label carries very precise instructions about how to open the bottle; the Champagne, despite being much more difficult to open, does not. I wonder which closure is actually more child-proof?

The Listerine also conveys instructions about how to close the bottle again, an act I imagine unlikely to be troubling customers of £9 Champagne.

In the glass, it is easy to distinguish between the two. The one exhibiting a kind of cloudy malevolence is, I was relieved to see, the mouthwash. And the Listerine has no mousse. The only way to achieve mousse in the mouthwash would be to eat one before you swill.

The Champagne requires you to get your nose right into the glass to pick up its very light, citrussy bouquet. That is a bad idea when it comes to the Listerine. It launches a sinus-pursing assault, with an antiseptic aroma redolent of surgical procedures.

And flavour-wise, in a traditional sniff, sip and spit tasting, the Champagne definitely comes out on top. It’s a bit bland, with a slightly bitter aftertaste, but it’s genuinely dry, faintly appley and perfectly drinkable. Whereas the Listerine is like an immensely strong eucalyptus cough lozenge. I mean, my palate has suffered some pretty dreadful stuff while writing Sediment, but this Listerine has been the worst. No wonder it hasn’t got an IWSC medal.

But… the mouthwash has merits of its own. It has to be said that chilled Champagne is very unsuited to swilling. I tried it, with a dose of Champagne measured in the handy Listerine cap, its flavour only marginally tainted by the plastic. The chill and the effervescence combine in a kind of oral explosion, like setting off a fire extinguisher in your mouth. It makes the insides of your cheeks crackle. After a second or two it has become a mouthful of froth, threatening to exit via your nose  – and after the full Listerine-recommended 30 seconds it has all but evaporated, leaving a sort of residue coating your teeth and gums.

And have you ever tried gargling with Champagne? May I recommend that you don’t? It took a warm cup of tea before I could speak properly again. It’s like having a small spiny creature wriggling in your oesophagus, as the cold needles of effervescence stab into the lining of your throat.

So you spends your money, and you takes your choice. Yes, Louis Delaunay also comes in a rosé, but then Listerine also comes in attractive shades of blue, green and purple. Yes, there is more drama in opening a Champagne bottle, but the Listerine screwcap doubles as its own shot glass, a marketing trick which Champagne seems to have missed.

And yet it’s clear that even Tesco, despite selling the two at comparable prices, accords one a greater ostensible value than the other. Read into this what you will: the Champagne on their shelves carries a security tag. The mouthwash does not.


Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Week In Wine: Small, Cheap, Discoveries A Cause For Celebration? You Be The Jury

So the Brother-in-Law gets back from his dash to Calais in search of bargain grog and, true to his word, brings round three bottles of Kina Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc at £2.99 a bottle and three of Waipara Hills Pinot Noir from Central Otago - each of these coming in a troubling £6.99, a sum I justified to myself several weeks earlier using a rationale I can now no longer access. Still: it averages out at about a fiver a bottle - only this time with the promise of better, less tearful, drinking than I am normally used to.

And what do you know? The Sauvignon Blanc is really not bad - actually very good, especially at £2.99: nice floral notes, pleasingly balanced acidity, grown-up finish, the whole experience utterly removed from my usual Sauvignon Blanc bile juice. Why didn't I ask for half a case? Especially since the Pinot Noir is nice without being arrestingly so, not the show-stopper I reckoned £6.99 should easily command. But anyway, I am marginally ahead of the game at this point and my vacuous sense of assurance increases very slightly the next day when this piece of inflammatory nonsense is pointed my way - champagne now being cheaper than mouthwash - and I start to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the world is at last coming round to my way of thinking. This train of thought only persists for a moment, as I know that the world never really comes round to my way of thinking not least because to all intents and purposes I have no way of thinking, only a way of reacting.

But then: the wife and I find ourselves at a dinner party, one of those things that PK habitually uses as a way of mediating his understanding of reality, an event where there are more than four people round the table and we all get a (delicious) starter and a very fancy main course and it is all as civilised as it could possibly be. So civilised, in fact, that I find myself seated opposite a fantasticaly distinguished medical type (penetrating gaze, quiet conviction of his own rightness) who leans across and says to me, in all sincerity:

'We've got a friend who's a Master of Wine. And he said to us the other day, The wine business, it's all a lot of bullshit!'

Well, I'm not going to dispute this, not least because I am already slightly awash with a toothsome Crozes Hermitage which seems to be freely available and I sense that anything I say stands a good chance of being unintelligible. Only then my new friend goes on:

'What's more, this Master of Wine was serving us a rosé and he ran out, so he said, I'll mix some up with a red and a white. And he did! He just mixed the two until he got the effect he wanted! It was very good!'

I slur something predictable about grapeskins, but my head is reeling, not just from the Crozes Hermitage but from the vista of possibilities that this information, however anecdotal, has revealed. Of course it's long been a plan of mine to see how realistically red + white = rosé - so long, that I'd forgotten about it until this moment. Now though, it comes rushing back with real kinetic force, not least because I have also been nurturing a quiet detestation of a wine page I found in the local glossy free mag - a wine page giving itself over (here's a surprise) to the delights of drinking rosé wines in the summertime.

As I write this, this blossoms gently bob in the breeze, the rosé roundup (Think Pink) begins, so you can see at once where this particular cavalcade of cliché is tending: in other words, lovely summer fruits, plenty of fruit, citrus in the fruity mix, just as much fruit and tastes of summer and sunshine. The clincher, though, the thing that really hurts, is not just the banality of the prose or its smugness but the fact that the very cheapest wine on offer is from Waitrose, at £8.99, while the priciest (Sainsbury's) comes in at £19.50. This latter - what do you know? - May be a step too far for many, but is also, consolingly enough, a glass of Mediterranean sunshine at its best.

Very well. A man I have never met before assures me that Masters of Wine cobble together a pink wine beverage using leftover red and white; a magazine-based wine selection sends me into a tizzy of rage with its complacent rosé lipservice; champagne and mouthwash cost the same; the stars align - and I understand that now is the moment to start experimenting with some of my crappiest whites and most implacable reds to create a true homebrewed rosé, still and sparkling. The summer is indeed starting to take shape.


Thursday, 20 April 2017

Can we pardon Aldi's French?

I once imagined that I might arrive at a station in life and be quietly alerted to attention-worthy wine arrivals. “Just thought you might like to know, old chap, there’s a couple of cases of rather well-priced claret coming in next week which might interest you…” 

Well, thanks to Sediment, people do now tell me about wines. “This is right up your aisle,” tweets @Simonnread. Unfortunately, it turns out he is referring to a new range of wines from Aldi.

But off I trot to my nearest branch, unerringly guided by following the descent of planes on the Heathrow flight path. Perhaps the station in life for which I am destined is indeed Hounslow Central.

Aldi's new Pardon My French range presents four French wines, each “cheekily” labelled with a kind of phonetic interpretation of their appelation. It’s what they call an “accessible” range, either because it only costs £4.99 a bottle, or because it clearly targets idiots. In fact it’s hard to decide who it insults more, the French and their language or the Aldi shopper and their intelligence.

For example, the Minervois is called Men Are From Mars. Why? Have we really sunk to the level at which we make fun of the way words in other languages sound? And even if you say menarefromMars very very quickly, it hardly sounds like Minervois. In fact, it is actually harder to say.

Ironically, as I struggle through the overcrowded aisles, I see that Aldi customers are already a linguistically sophisticated bunch. They must be, to distinguish between Shredded Wheat and, adjacent to it, Wheat Shreds. Between Nutella and the cheaper Nutoka. There is a range of instant stuffing called Quixo, which rings some kind of phonetic bell.

Or is it only the French language with which the customers are supposed to be challenged? Because I see gnocchi, and chorizo Ibérico, and a pizza with schiacciata salami. If they can manage those, surely they can manage Fitou?

But no; in the Pardon My French range, Fitou becomes Fit You. Of course, I think immediately of TS Eliot’s use in The Waste Land of the line from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, “Why then Ile fit you”. Like many Aldi customers, I’m sure.

Does calling a wine Fit You make it in any way more appealing, more “accessible”, than calling it Fitou? Or does it just sound like a sneeze?

Their Ventoux is renamed Want To, an absurdity of a phrase. If you’re going down that route, why not call it Want Two, which at least makes some kind of sense, and suggests people might like it and desire more? But no; it’s Want To. It doesn’t even begin with a V, a sound widely and easily pronounced in this country, as in the now-common phrase, “Gregg Wallace no longer feels the need to wear a shirt on Masterchef, and instead appears in his vest."

And their Cotes de Gascogne is called Gastronomy. I suppose we should be grateful they didn’t simply rename it after Gazza.

Having driven to Hounslow Aldi to get them, I felt some kind of duty to taste all four of these aberrations. That Cotes de Gascogne has an initial elderflower taste which evaporates immediately, leaving only a faint lemony tang and a claggy feel as it warms up. The Ventoux is acrid, cheek-puckering and bitter. After an initial aggressive blast, the Minervois is flabby and flavourless, like a diluted cordial. And the Fitou is oily, flat and feeble, and labouring under a bouquet of Elastoplast. They are all, as Aldi might say, Mayored.

A spokesman from Aldi told the Mirror: “There’s no doubt that France produces some of the best wines in the world”.Well, if this was all the French wine I had tasted, there would be doubt in my mind  

He went on to say that “we really believe these wines have a certain ‘je ne sais quoi.'" Which he presumably doesn’t expect his customers to understand. Or did he mean to say ‘Juno say choir’?

Pardon My French? Sorry, no.


Thursday, 13 April 2017

Horrible Cheap Wines: A User's Half-Guide

So having got through my gutbucket Tesco indulgence (least worst turned out to be the generic Chardonnay, worst by a mile the Spanish red) and not yet having claimed my Brother-in-Law's booze run offerings (this weekend, I'm hoping) I am drifting a bit and therefore naturally prey to the first piece of cheapskate news that comes my way. Which turns out, equally naturally, to come from PK, who draws my attention to this from Majestic Wine: a bid to get properly stuck into the Cadbury's Creme Egg sector of the wine trade, with a choice of price-pointed, fun-loving, cartoon-driven generics, including, worryingly, a Spanish red and a Chardonnay with a picture of two cartoon men wearing comedy fruit headpieces.

Normally, I'd say yes to all this, because, after all, cheap'n'cheerful is exactly what I live for and will, in all probability, die of. There's something melancholy, though, about Majestic being reduced to cartoons of men in fruit costumes or their underpants in order to cop a piece of Tesco's business - because, back in their prime, the point of Majestic was that they found you entertaining, affordable grog which was every bit as entertaining and affordable as I'm sure their new Majestic Loves range will turn out to be; but which looked, and sometimes tasted, as if it had come from somewhere other than a huge industrial zone outside Valencia. I suppose you could say it had, or appeared to have, charm, once.

But this is where we are and I'm sure next time I'm in Majestic I will be drawn ineluctably towards the brightly-coloured junk at one end of the store with a view to wasting £5.99 multiplied by x, where x is > 1 but < 6. But then it occurs to me, not just that Majestic are being forced to try and out-supermarket the supermarkets, but that horrible cheap brazen wine is now so ubiquitous, especially in my world, that I must have evolved some kind of mechanism for choosing between these various rubbishes, something other than the point where cheapjack marketing meets blind chance.

So, after some head-scratching, I come up with three cardinal considerations: colour, bottling, provenance. When going downscale, red is always the first choice. Miraculously, a red can be both disgusting and yet just this side of drinkable. Yes, I've applied this rule too many times not to be caught out by it, but that's where I stand: especially if the alternative is white, which can be okay if you freeze it to the point at which it hurts your hand but which otherwise is nothing more than dirty alcoholic rainwater. Moreso with sparkling whites - something about the bubbles increases the toxicity, hard to escape even if you chill the stuff to a near-solid. And on no account should anyone touch a crap rosé. I don't know what it is about that drink: I've drunk some appalling rosés for which I've paid £7 or more, and the cheap ones are every bit as awful, only with an extra tramp-like hogo coming off them. And don't even mention Zinfandel Blush, the party squeaker of still wines.

Bottling? A nice label is what it's all about. Too spartan and/or gimmicky and it galls you every time you look at it. Too fastidious - drypoint Provençal mas, hand-turned lettering, date - and it acts as a tart reminder of how much distance there is between it and the thing it's a gutter variant of. But (depending on taste) a bit of playfulness can really lift your spirits even as your mouth tells you another story. That Le Réveil Cabernet Sauvignon which goes for around the magic £5.99 is pretty rough, but the label's so cute you can forgive it almost anything.

And the provenance? Lidl, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Aldi, they all do perfectly okay trash wines if you stick to £5.99 and not allow yourself to be tempted much lower. Asda and M & S Food, I'm not sure; the Co-op is usually somewhere out in the sticks and therefore too small to have a range. Waitrose, on the other hand, is emphatically a bad place for your garbage drinking needs because they aim their produce at an imaginary clientele which entertains lifestyle choices and confidently splashes £8 + on its everyday wines, with the result that anything off the bottom shelf is beneath its contempt, literally. It is, however, my nearest full-sized supermarket - a two-minute walk from the front door. And it sells Le Réveil. The upshot? I have spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds on my cheap drinking habits in there, over the years: a contradiction which, alone, may account for my current dismal state. I think The Guide may need more work.


Thursday, 6 April 2017

This sceptic's aisle

Don’t you just love reports and surveys which seem to bear no similarity to your own experience?

We have just been told that there are high levels of customer satisfaction in the retail experience of buying wine in a supermarket. That customers are happily “lingering” in the wine aisle. And that we find shopping in the supermarket for wine almost, but not quite, as enjoyable as shopping for cheese at the deli counter.

Where to start…?

I hesitate to begin sentences with the phrase “Am I the only person…”, because it invariably turns out that I am. But am I the only person who hates purchasing cheese from the deli counter?

Waiting and waiting, trying to remember who was before you (because the old ‘take a numbered ticket’ system seems to have been relegated to the grimmest of hand-out queues). And trying to remember who was after you, because there’s going to be a background of tutting and sighing throughout your service if it’s that posh-looking bloke with just a bachelor’s basket.

There are the agonies of trying to order the right amount – a bit less than that…no, a bit more than that… no, just a bit more…It’s harder than directing someone to scratch your back. And “Would you like a taste?” No, actually, I wouldn’t, because I don’t usually start my day with Stilton.

And the whole ghastly experience is surrounded by the suspicion that it’s exactly the same stuff that’s wrapped in plastic on the aisles, only given some kind of artisan sheen by carving it in front of you.

So the wine aisle has got a pretty low enjoyment threshold to surpass as far as I’m concerned. Sadly, it fails even that.

What is this “lingering” nonsense? People aren’t “lingering” in the wine aisle, they’re paralysed with indecision. They’re overwhelmed with choice. They’re frozen with incomprehension, like Victorians watching a jet plane.

It’s like this. You don’t “linger” in a polling booth. You’ve gone in, expecting to make your decision between three, maybe four well-known names. And suddenly there are all these strange alternatives; Homes Not Roads, Roads Not Homes, H’Angus the Monkey, Lord Buckethead of the Gremloids, Douglas Carswell. There’s even a whole second sheet, for a simultaneous local election that you didn’t even know was happening, as confusing as an unexpected special offer on Chilean reds.

And you’re overwhelmed with opportunities. Suddenly there are options you didn’t even know existed. This is choice overload.

In the wine aisle, there are even more unexpected possibilities. Look, that one’s half price – or is it really? Is that the one I read about, or not? Oh sod it, shall I settle for that one again? “Coming, dear, just coming… I’ll catch you up…” You’re going to get it wrong. You’re not lingering, you’re panicking.

No, all that “lingers” in my supermarket wine aisle is a faint air of desperation. Or is it disinfectant?

How, after all that, can people find shopping for wine in a supermarket “enjoyable” and “satisfying”? Only because there’s a powerful sense of anticipation, of enjoyment to come, which doesn’t generally apply in the aisle of kitchen rolls. Unlike many household purchases, you believe that your supermarket wine will bring you positive pleasure. Which really is a triumph of hope over experience.

Please, don’t tell supermarkets that they will benefit if they “invest in making the wine aisle an enjoyable place for shoppers to linger.” God knows what obstacles they will conceive to keep us there for longer. Jugglers? Magicians? Comfy chairs, to sit and peruse the Wall of Wine?

Or perhaps they’ll just move the Saturday assistant over from the cheese counter. To hand you a bottle when you point to it, rather than let you pick it up yourself.

The next time Shopper Intelligence explore something like this, I suggest they involve someone more appropriate in their research. Like an intelligent shopper.


Thursday, 30 March 2017

Tesco's Worst and Best: Spanish, Italian and Something Else

So I've just paid a load of money into the bank and am feeling dangerously flush. It occurs to me for about the third time in my life that instead of celebrating by going out and buying a dozen pairs of socks or a second-hand external hard drive - something useful, in other words - I could treat myself to a bottle of posh wine. That's what PK would do, after all, and what doesn't he know about lifestyle?

But even as I weigh up the possibilities (nice French red, maybe a decent Chianti for once, or one of those flash New Zealand whites) a friend emails me with the news that Tesco are knocking out own-brand wines for £3.50 a bottle and I should get down there before they all disappear. Not just any friend, but the maniac behind the tanker wine idea and, more recently, Sediment:The Sitcom, so I know it's for real. As he also notes, £3.50 is cheaper per litre than roof sealant, Brasso and Mr Muscle, as well as being a mere 51p short of the classic 1980's price point of £2.99.

Which is when I realise that not only has Tesco got some cheap muck in, but, in an incredible piece of synchronicity, my Brother-in-Law is actually in the process of doing his annual booze run to Calais, in the course of which he has promised to get me a couple of bottles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on offer at £2.99 a bottle. This is one of those moments when you feel the hand of Fate resting on your shoulder, a moment in which you say to yourself, This is my Destiny, like Michelangelo, or whoever, an understanding that this is the path mapped out for you and that you must take it or die. Or take it and die. Either way, you cannot deny your true calling. It is a big moment; and I discard at once any ideas of going upscale.

Instead I get down to the nearest big Tesco and scarf up a bottle of Tesco Spanish Red, a Tesco Italian Red and a Tesco generic Chardonnay, all at £3.50 a go. Actually, there are a couple of Lambruscos at £2.50 a bottle, but there's something clearly very wrong with a beverage that low on the evolutionary scale - even I can see that - so I give them a wide berth and head purposefully for home. Given that the duty + VAT on a bottle of wine at this end of the range is about £3, this leaves 50p for the producer/bottler, as well as Tesco's mark-up - assuming they are selling this stuff at a profit and not just getting rid of a terrible purchasing decision as fast as they can - which is enough to give me pause for thought at a roundabout; but, no, I've been here before, I can cope.

Half an hour later I find myself at the kitchen table with a ham and cheese sandwich and the Spanish Red, something of stand-off developing. Turns out the red comes in at 11% and is a Product of Spain, not even produce, a distinction I find troubling, but I take a deep breath and get stuck in. Bleeding gums raspberry colour, zero nose, followed by grapefruit, insoles, old flower water, some sulphur and a brief up yours of acidity. Perhaps better once I've left it overnight, I reflect. At any rate, I have three cheap bottles of disappointing wine to get through, rather than one equally but differently disappointing bottle for a tenner; so things are about where I expected them to be, and for a properly stoical wine drinker that's good.

More than that, though: also open (and now well into its third sullen day) is a bottle, by way of comparison, of Argentinian Beefsteak Club Malbec which I bought on offer from Waitrose but which has a full retail price of £8.79 - two and a half times the Tesco stuff. This Malbec is rank, sweaty, rebarbative, nothing appealing about it, not even the label, which bafflingly declares Beef & Liberty in stencil-effect red uppercase - a Nigel Farage kind of rubric which only makes things worse. But at the same time it consoles me: it is lousy and overpriced; while the Tesco is lousy and the right price, by virtue of which it becomes no longer lousy, merely adequate. And this is all fine. The spring sunshine has come out, I didn't crash the car on the way to or from the supermarket, the outcome of my trip is almost exactly as I anticipated it, my game remains firmly unraised. In these troubled times, I call that a result.


Thursday, 23 March 2017

Everyday China – Changyu Noble Dragon

China is not well known for its wine – which, of course, means nothing. Just because something’s not well known doesn’t mean there isn’t someone who knows it well. Don’t even try and dismiss the wines of an oenologically-challenged country – Greenland, say, or Bangla Desh. Because there’s always some smart-arse pops up, saying “How dare you dismiss their wines!

“Obviously you haven’t tried tried Hiffen-Liffen, that rare blend of Triffen and Whiffen, let alone the extraordinary Mujid-Pujid or the languid Mesut Ozil.

“You really are displaying your ignorance.  Presumably you’ve never even been there! Do you just buy your wines from the supermarket?” Well, largely, yes.

But fortunately, a supermarket is now allowing me to satisfy this particular smidgen of curiosity – because here is Changyu’s Noble Dragon, China’s mass-market red wine, being sold in Sainsbury’s.

Immediately, a bottle of Noble Dragon presents some talking points. That irritating flange/lip/thing at the neck of the bottle, which means that some corkscrews won’t work on it. An odd little plastic imitation of a wax seal, stuck onto the top of the cork, which doesn’t actually seal anything. And pictograms everywhere, which for all I know might be either pairing recommendations, or hazardous liquid warnings.

But at the same time it’s extraordinary how they’ve picked up all the clichés of traditional European wine labelling. There’s the drypoint-like image of the “chateau” in Yantai. There’s the use of Germanic and script typefaces. There’s the reassurances of heritage (‘Since 1892…”) and quality. “Eighty years of quality assurance” – sounds like the Prudential.

There’s a little map of China on the back label, because, of course, we should know exactly where in China it comes from, in case we expected something from a neighbouring appellation.

And could it be deliberate, to reinforce the distance, the otherness of this wine, that, given the wealth and resources of the company, the English on the back label is surprisingly poor? “It is round and smooth in mouth, acting elegantly as a full bodied wine.”

It has, as they used to say of actor Karl Malden, quite a nose.  It reminds me of those mornings after, when one had to face the fragrance of a full ashtray. Then there is some initial cherryish action going on, but it’s quite shallow in flavour. Finally there’s a very dry finish, followed by quite a bitter aftertaste.

This is the biggest-selling wine in the world; in 2015, it sold 450 million bottles, more than the entire output of Rioja. Which, frankly, I would prefer to possess.

This could be a cheap wine from anywhere, really, although a cheap wine from anywhere would give you more change out of a tenner. Noble Dragon gives you none. Which means its curiosity value is about £4.01, the amount you’re paying on top of a similar cheap Chilean Cabernet.

Given the success rate of supermarkets at selecting wines from anywhere else, there is no reason to assume this is representative of the quality Chinese wine can achieve. But at least my curiosity has been resolved. Mind that dead cat.


Thursday, 16 March 2017

Great Wine Moments In Movie History IX: Topsy-Turvy (1999)

As a rule, I find most of Mike Leigh's films completely unwatchable - his Happy-Go-Lucky of 2008 being about as bad as a film can get when it comes to tin-eared dialogue, lethargy-inducing mise en scène and dimwit characterization - and yet he has, in some kind of illustration of a basic human law, managed to produce a couple of really, really good movies - both period pieces: the authentically tragic Vera Drake (2004); and the authentically dazzling Topsy-Turvy - the story of how Gilbert and Sullivan got their groove back with The Mikado. And yes, in Topsy-Turvy, there is wine.

More accurately, drink punctuates the movie: a quiet index of the characters' situations and expectations, as meaningful as the clothes they wear and the expressions on their faces. Which means that when, about fifty minutes in, we observe the actress Leonara Braham (unflinchingly played by Shirley Henderson) slumped in her dressing-room, filling a wine-glass brimful of neat bourbon and staring abstractedly into its depths, we know not just that something is wrong, but that it is terribly wrong.

After all, Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) has been seen embracing the virtues of champagne (in a Parisian brothel); and some kind of high-end Burgundy, from the look of it, in a supersmart restaurant, where he inks his share in the new Savoy Hotel being built by D'Oyly Carte. His drink is a mark of licentiousness or high prosperity - in contrast with the stuff that W. S. Gilbert goes for. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent on pure top form) is prickly, diligent, obsessed with getting the small things right, keen not to waste money; tea and coffee are therefore his motifs, their sobriety only lessened when Sullivan - in one scene - plies him with a sugar-cube. Oh, and to round out the drinks selection, three of the younger male leads get stuck into some Guinness and oysters about half-way through the film; with hilarious consequences.

All of which is framed so thoughtfully, in such measured filmic terms, with such grave opulence, that it doesn't take much to disturb the surface richness. George Grossmith shooting up in his dressing-room is about the most shocking image; the actors' strike is almost as arresting, although for rather different reasons; Leonara Braham getting loaded and maudlin is another kind of backstage disruption, much bigger in impact than it has any right to be. As it happens, Miss Braham was in real life both a drunk and the mother of a clandestine child, even though her position in the company depended on her way with ingenue soprano roles. 'When I meet a gentleman, he invites me to supper,' she murmurs on-screen through her cigarette smoke, 'I mention my little secret - and then he's off, quick smart.' Her son, her 'Precious little bundle', is a tragedy as well as a justification for living - a situation which mirrors the bleak inability of the established, well-to-do Gilberts to conceive a child; as well as Sullivan's tendency to get his mistress pregnant before having the unborn child discreetly got rid of.

All of which is contained in the way Shirley Henderson aims her moue at the rim of her glassful of hard liquor, in the way she holds the glass close to her, tenderly resting it on her bodice, her fondling of the glass binding ideas of drink and maternal affection in one image. Which in turn is put into context by all the other visual references to cups, glasses, beakers and carafes littering the frame; which in their turn are all parts of the complex, crowded, visual texture of the film, whose genius is to reveal how all this density and complexity can be shaped into something as apparently air-light and uniform as The Mikado - or, if you want to go down that road, as coherent and satisfying as Topsy-Turvy itself. The glass is nothing, just a tiny part of the pattern, but on this occasion you've got to hand it to Mike Leigh: he really knows how to fill a picture with meaning.


Thursday, 9 March 2017

Preserved for posterity – Jancis v Sediment

The University of California has acquired the archive of Jancis Robinson; forty years of wine tasting notes, her travel notebooks, notes on Chateau Latour, invitations from the Queen, personal correspondence and published articles. A feature in the San Francisco Chronicle explained the acquisition  by saying that “Robinson invented ways to be a wine writer that had never existed before”,

This is clearly also true of Sediment, which similarly invented ways of being a wine writer which had never existed before, viz. while knowing little to nothing about wine.

So perhaps there is some former Poly, or one of the poorly supported council libraries, which would be interested in acquiring the Sediment archive?

At the heart of the Sediment archive is a treasure trove of crumpled supermarket receipts. These provide a fascinating glimpse into the authors’ wine-buying habits; they document the seesawing prices of discounted supermarket wines, and provide historians with precise documentation of the dates of “25% off six bottles” offers.

The receipts record the pitifully low sums which the authors regularly spent on their wines, illustrated further by a marked-up list from Majestic, a booklet from Lidl and some sort of leaflet which came through the door from Waitrose.

The archive pinpoints increasingly hard-to-find retailers such as Threshers, Nicolas and Oddbins, and tracks the relentless rise of CJ’s pricepoint from £5 to the heady heights of £6.99, while the sorry state of wine deliveries is recorded by a collection of “While you were out…” cards.

There are, sadly, no notes on Chateau Latour; if there were, they would probably be “Can’t afford it” from PK and, from CJ, “What?” But then, the Jancis Robinson archive probably lacks notes on Sainsbury’s Basic, “reminiscent of alcohol and wet carpet, like the aftermath of a student party”. 

And here are all of the other original Sediment tasting notes, in handwriting whose deteriorating legibility provides confirmation that the authors didn’t just consider wines; they consumed them.

There are fascinating similarities; Jancis’s notes on Latour employ the descriptive term “open”, which Sediment also use, having decided it was helpful to “open” most of their wines.

One can see in her notes on Latour comparisons like “red fruits”, “cheese” and “violets”. Sediment’s points of comparison reflect more of a quintessential Englishness, referring to such evocative national products as Airwick, Flash and Copydex, in notes such as “acrid, nasal – like crushed insects in Brasso”.

Sediment’s invitation from the Queen sadly seems to have gone astray. However, there is one from the Prime Minister, a moment at which PK believed he would achieve new status in wine drinking, only to be offered a glass of Campo Viejo. 

And, perhaps distinguishing itself from the Jancis archive yet again, the Sediment archive does contain an invitation from ASDA, to a tasting event at which CJ “sat bathed in mute and baffled dread.” Which could explain the absence from the archive of any other invitation from any other supermarket. 

Here finally is the original manuscript for the Sediment book. It makes fascinating reading, with particular reference to the amendments required by lawyers, including exchanges over the potentially libellous use of words such as “emetic”. The archive allows scholars to identify the retailers that the authors were not allowed to describe as “dreary” and “charmless”, and the producer whose wine could not be described as “rust remover”.

What will students find, asked the San Francisco Chronicle, when they encounter the Jancis documents? “I think it will be an interesting snapshot into where wine was,” Robinson says.

Sediment already know where wine was – it was in the bottle, then it was in the glass, then it was, somewhat briskly, gone –  but their archive offers an alternative snapshot of everyday wine drinking, and a record of its cost which will be of particular interest to their wives.


Thursday, 2 March 2017

Trump Wine: Cabernet Sauvignon and Fortified Chardonnay

So now seems like as good a time as any to contemplate Donald Trump's impact on the world of wine. And what an impact it's been! As he himself gets someone else to put it in The Art Of The Deal, 'I like thinking big. I always have.' And, 'From the very start, size was a top priority.' And, 'It's larger than life.' And, 'Listen to your gut.' If I ever wanted a teetotal megalomaniac casino developer to blend my grapes, than Donald J. Trump would be the man: it's all about quantity and bowels.

Yes, we have a potential situation with Trump's teetotalism (his older brother, Freddy, died an alcoholic which kind of accounts for it) but a mere complete lack of familiarity with something is oviously no bar to success in that chosen sphere. So Trump wines? Or vodka, even? Why ever not?

Well, not the vodka, obviously, as that's gone the way of Trump University, Trump Magazine, Trump Institute, Trump Airlines, Trump Steak, Trump: The Game, Trump natrual spring water, Tour de Trump, Trump on the Ocean, and Trump Network. Trump Vodka ('Awful,' according to one critic) was axed from most markets in 2011, despite being offered in a gold Cubist bottle with a vast T on the front. Nevertheless, the wine persists, with a smart website telling you all about the sprawling estate in Virginia where they make the Trump range, plus a list of its numerous awards, plus a calendar of upscale events like the Mother's Day Brunch and the Bastille Day Vine and Dine.

And there's an online shop, which sets my heart pounding at the thought that I might be able to acquire some of this stuff and thereby get that tiny bit closer to the current leader of the free world. With tragic inevitability, however, you can only get it shipped within the States, and not all of them. Why not Kansas, Delaware, West Virginia or Arizona? What have they done to be deprived of the Trump Winery's unique Fortified Chardonnay, known as Cru? Made by 'Blending Chardonnay juice with grape brandy', this 'Fortified wine is then aged for over a year in American bourbon barrels', but if you're stuck in Wilmington or Bisbee, you have nothing to look forward to.

It's even worse here in the UK, where I am reduced to speculating on whether or not I could persuade my New York friends to blag a couple of bottles and bring them over the next time they're here. I don't know: could I be bothered to drag a couple of Nyetimbers over to them? No, of course not. Which leaves me, for now, supplicating the internet for other people's reviews of Trump's output and trying to get a sense of it that way.

Naturally, one wants these reviews to be as highly-charged and inflammatory as possible, given the kind of person Trump is. But things are more nuanced than that. Even critics who have clearly set out to rubbish Trump Wines sometimes find themselves wrong-footed into grudgingly faint praise: 'This could actually be much more offensive,' says one, about Trump's Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc Meritage 2014; 'Actually...quite subtle', says another reviewer about a white Trump; 'Well-crafted and food-friendly' is a third cautious encomium. The consensus? Trump Wines are quite often quite okay.

But then again: what really sticks in the mind is the way that the Trump Winery website harps on about so much that isn't actually wine. Yes, lots of wineries try to get you to consume things that are only incidental to the booze itself - guided tours, online sales, corporate functions in the fully air-conditioned Sauvignon Suite - but the Trump Winery not only has tastings, online buying, corporate events and commemorative meals, it also offers four different kinds of wedding experience, a wine club, toy dogs, baseball hats, semi-automated donations to St. Jude's Hospital and a frilly, conspicuously set-dressed boutique hotel with a swimming pool, 'A culinary experience unique to Virginia' and rooms at $449 a night. Given that Trump picked the estate up for not a huge amount before handing it over to his son, Eric, it's hard to imagine that it has much resonance for him. Could it be that Trump, wine and Trump Junior are only in it for the short term? And that some larger ambition awaits the estate? 'I never get too attached to one deal or one approach,' the great man has said. Which I think is something we can all learn from, especially if we've spent the morning drinking a bottle of fortified Chardonnay while wearing a themed baseball hat.