Thursday, 12 October 2017

Whatever…it's rosé

“Do you fancy some rosé with that fish?”

“Ooh! Yes! Where did you buy that from?”

“Ah… I didn’t. Someone must have brought it.”

“One of our visitors, you mean?”

“I assume so. There are a few odd bottles in the cellar…


"Basement…"

"… which people have brought round, and I have just stuck down there. And there just happens to be this rosé.”

“Is it any good?”

“How do I know? I didn’t buy it! I mean, it’s not Domaine Templier or anything, that’s for sure. It’s…Whatever…it’s rosé.”

“You could look it up, couldn’t you?”

“I could, yes, but really, what’s the point? I mean, that fish is nearly cooked. And I don’t have another bottle of rosé. How was I to know there was a sunny weekend coming?”

“Well, I got the fish…”

“Yes, but you got that today, from the posh fishmongers, and if I’d suggested today that we got a bottle of rosé, you’d have given me that look.”

“What look?”

“The one which says ‘All you ever think about is wine, can’t you be excited about the fish?’”

“I thought the whole idea of you having a wine cellar was that you had different wines to suit different meals and so on?”

“To an extent, yes. But that extent sort of stops before rosé.”

“Why?”

“Because people don’t really keep rosé.”

“How long have you kept this one, then?”

“I don’t know. That’s not the point. The point is that if I’d bought it while we were out today, it would have been part of a plan, whereas I have come upstairs with this bottle of rosé, and it’s an unexpected treat. Ta da!

“And it is going to be a treat, is it?”

I don’t know! Look, it’s rosé. And this is probably the last time this year we’re going to drink any, and it’s really not worth keeping until next year. So I’m going to open it anyway. Oh.”

“What’s that face for?”

“It’s got a plastic cork. That’s not good.”

“Worse than a screwcap?”

“Probably. It means it’s got ideas above its station. Like a cartridge pen; it’s neither a proper traditional fountain pen, nor an efficient modern Biro. Whatever…it’s rosé”

“Nice colour…”

“That doesn’t mean anything, really. They’re making them paler and paler nowadays. Having said that, you know you’re in trouble when it’s the colour of bubblegum.”

“And what’s it like, then?”

“Could be colder. Rosé could always be colder. Oh. Oh… Still… it’s rosé.”

“Is it really horrible, then?”

“You try it.”

“It’s pretty horrible”

“Yes. Whatever… it’s rosé.”

PK

Thursday, 5 October 2017

China: Harder Than It Looks


So back we come after a month in China and we are shattered, dirty and overwhelmed by massive colds. We have infected an entire 777 on the return flight from Beijing to London and can now barely talk. All we want to do is die in the quiet of our own home. And it is only at this point that I yearn for my bottle of Three Gorges Wine Company 52% liquor, reasoning that not even the Three Gorges liquor can be worse than the way I currently feel and maybe a shot would actually help. Then I remember that I left it in a fridge somewhere in China and anyway, it's truly undrinkable, dead or alive.

I acquired this awful liquid, this Three Gorges baijiu (I think it's known as) at a place called Yichang on the Yangzi River. I paid too much for it (£1.60 for 125 ml); but then again, Three Gorges Wine Company liquor is so bad that a little goes a really long way. I only bought it in the first place because I'd seen other people (blokes, invariably) tucking into variations of the stuff in eateries and restaurants and reasoned That must be just the thing, taken in small quantities, to round off a hard day's sightseeing.

Could not have been more wrong, of course. I don't think I've ever drunk anything so alarming, not even when I was a teenager experimenting with bucket homebrew and amateur wine and White Shield. The one and only time I consumed Three Gorges Wine Company 52% liquor (Lake North Famous Brand Goods it also said in English in small print as a come-on) I was almost blinded. It started off nice and cold from the fridge before exploding into a horrible stale grappa kind of nose after which all I remember is choking helplessly while tears coursed down my cheeks. I was on fire and I was crying and having convulsions. It was authentically frightening. What was in the bottle? Various ingredients had been suggested to me by people along the way, including wheat, rye, rice, grapes, sorghum and barley, but the colourless, slightly viscous end product wasn't really intelligible on account of the coughing and blinding; and even when I wasn't blind I couldn't read the Chinese writing on the label to get a better idea.

Was it just a terrifying one-off? Hard to say. Higher-end variants are heavily advertised on roadside billboards as well as sold in relatively smart liquor shops, so there's nothing unfamiliar about the basic concept. In fact I watched a bunch of local lads in the great city of Tianjin start off their evening meal with a large bottle of baijiu split four ways, followed by three bottles apiece of dependably excellent Tsingtao beer - and still manage to cope with chopsticks and a cauldron of boiling hot bouillon. So, no, my Three Gorges wasn't entirely freakish. Baijiu is apparently the most widely-drunk hard liquor in the world and I just picked a terrible example.

Would I have been better off with one of the local regular wines? A Cabernet Sauvignon from the Great Wall winemakers? A camel-themed rosé whose label I could not construe, but which the translation app on my phone rendered as Drunk Piece? A Chilean red called Legend of Chilephant with an elephant on the label? Yes, of course: they wouldn't have made me cry. On the other hand, I did drink some Changyu sparkling white which looked like wine but tasted just like the Sprite in a neighbouring glass, so maybe it's not as simple as that.

Either way, the experience was pretty emblematic. I mean, China is an astonishing, hugely impressive work in progress, crammed with energies and achievements and modernities barely forty years after the end of the Cultural Revolution; but it's also relentless, fairly bonkers, extremely hard to decode, hugely unrelaxing for the Western tourist. A modest bottle of bathtub hooch turns out to be not a way of unwinding, but an incredibly challenging thing, a threat, an affront to the sensibilities which this traveller did not even begin to anticipate. That and stewed chicken feet for breakfast: we still have so much to learn.


CJ

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Take it away…

Let’s just start with this name, shall we? The Takeout. In this country, our food is takeaway. We do not take out meals, except from a fridge. We take away food – we take out rubbish.

So right from the outset, I am prejudiced against a wine which is based on a marketing premise – let’s flog a wine to people ordering food from restaurants to eat at home – and then gets it so simply, linguistically, wrong.

And then they do it again! “Made to take away” it says on the label – well, it’s not, is it? Call me a pedant (and please, while you’re at it, undo that bottom waistcoat button), but if anything, it’s made not to, but for take away, surely? Unless you’re going to nick it from the supermarket.

Actually if, as it suggests elsewhere, you “Enjoy fine dining from the comfort of your couch”, then the wine is emphatically staying in. It’s another matter entirely whether the dining that comes on the back of a moped can conceivably be described as “fine”.

“There’s nothing like a night in,” it says, a reminder which makes me immediately want to go out. Personally I hate ordering a takeaway. I can’t stand the nervous waiting. How long will they be? Have they lost the order? Is that them? Shall I warm the plates up yet? Is that them? I’ll go and have a look through the window. Perhaps they can’t find the house? Is that them? IT’S THEM!

But takeaways are clearly popular. And the most popular in this country are Chinese and Indian. Possibly because both of them are really difficult, and time-consuming, and “pinch of a herb or spice you haven’t got” demanding, to cook upon a whim. Who’s going to order something any fule can cook? Who’s going to stand in the Dragon’s Den and propose a fish finger delivery service?

Unfortunately, in a hitch somehow unforeseen by The Takeout’s marketing department, neither Chinese nor Indian cuisine really pair with Sangiovese, immediately losing them 59% of the UK takeaway market.

The label – indeed, the front label – tells us the dishes with which it does pair. But it regains little ground, since they include fettucine alfredo, a dish patently unsuited to delivery, as its simple ingredients of pasta, melted butter and melted cheese would coagulate on the back of a moped into a sort of yellowish breeze block.  

However, at least we are told the wine does pair well with pizza, our nation’s third favourite takeaway, and a dish with which you can’t really go wrong. Unless someone wants pineapple on it.

And the Takeout has a screwcap, thoughtful when you’re panicking about your delivery getting cold. But beneath it is a pugilistic wine with an acidic edge, lacking not only body or depth, but also the liveliness which Sangiovese can display. Hardly a suitable partner for that “fine dining” they mentioned.

There are so many flaws in this whole concept. In one scenario, you are buying this wine to keep until you have a takeaway delivered at some point in the future, on the evidently false assumption that it will go with whatever you order.

Or, you are actually picking up your takeaway, so you pop into the supermarket to get a bottle of wine to go with it – and bereft of any idea what to get, you buy this because it says it will go with a “takeout”. Although it probably won’t go with yours.

There are many questions around takeaways – such as why does our Indian restaurant always put a little plastic bag of salad in with the dishes they deliver? (You never get salad in the restaurant…)

But there is only one question around The Takeout. Why?

PK

Thursday, 21 September 2017

CJ is away travelling…



…but if you feel deprived of SEDIMENT this week, you might read our guest feature for Female First, in which we take you on a brief if visually cluttered journey through life's 4 Stages Of Wine Drinking

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Is that wine on your t-shirt?

What madness is this? I wander into a good wine merchant in a provincial city, just looking around. (“Can I help you sir?” “No, I’m just looking around…”) And suddenly, I spy a stack of t-shirts. They are branded with the wine merchant’s name. And they are for sale, like some kind of souvenir.

Now, there are a few one-off, internationally celebrated shops to which tourists make a special visit. If you go to Shakespeare & Company in Paris, or C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries in New York, you might possibly want to display their names on a t-shirt back home, to show that you’d been there. For visitors to our capital, that status might just apply to Fortnum & Mason, or to the once-iconic Knightsbridge store we now think of as Horrid. But seriously, would it apply to any of our wine merchants?

It’s one thing producing attractive, reusable bags bearing a wine merchant’s name. These are functional items, not only for carrying home your purchased wine, but for disguising later purchases from embarrassing retailers. Walk up the road with what is clearly six bottles in Asda bags? No thanks; I’ll pop them into my Lea & Sandeman bag-for-life and, for as long as no-one looks inside, try to look like a man of wealth and taste. For half the price of a bottle of their actual wine. 


But are there any wine merchants so aspirational that their names could be displayed on t-shirts like designer brands? Had he actually done so, might CJ have bought a Berry Bros & Rudd t-shirt, to commemorate summoning up the nerve to cross their threshold?  We shall, of course, never know. I suspect, however,that any business flaunting an ampersand would feel it somewhat vulgar to emblazon their name across a t-shirt – as indeed would their customers. We’re unlikely to see t-shirts bearing the names of Corney & Barrow, or Justerini & Brooks; we’ll have to settle for Cuthbert, Dibble & Grub. 


Few of us, surely, would wear a t-shirt emblazoned with the names of, say, Oddbins or Majestic. Unless, of course, we worked there. In which case, it would be less a fashion statement, more a contractual obligation. 

Perhaps other merchants might leap in, creating “witty” slogans for t-shirts? “I’m a Sampler”. “I waited in for Laithwaites”. “How Avery dare you!”. No, let’s stop there, and not even consider what slogans might be created for Virgin, Naked and Rude.
 

Because this could mark the emergence in wine of what I believe in the music industry is known as merch. I was there!, declares your tour merchandise. I saw Adele! I was in the same (very large) space as the Rolling Stones! I survived a Liam Gallagher gig!

So why not tell the world that you’ve experienced a bottle of Lafite? If you did actually get to drink something like a bottle of DRC, you might well like a t-shirt to commemorate it. Fellow enthusiasts might sidle up to you to discuss it. “Oh, cool man, 2008, remember those top notes?” (Sorry, was that DRC, or Adele?) 

Imagine on a t-shirt the iconic Latour tower, or the year’s Mouton artwork, reflecting your connoisseurship. Or an image of any tasteful label, complete with year, to announce your wine experience. Wearing a wine label on your chest could be like wearing your heart on your sleeve.

Or in CJ’s case, something like a Tough Mudder t-shirt for completing an assault course. “I finished this bottle of bottom-shelf Shiraz and lived to tell the tale”

But the wine is not the same as the merchant, is it? Been there, done that, got the t-shirt should not apply to visiting a wine merchant, however gruelling the experience might be. I hope these wine merchants are not suggesting that a visit to their store is so arduous that you deserve a t-shirt to show that you survived it.

Unless perhaps it’s to identify repeat customers, so that by wearing a t-shirt they stop asking, as soon as you cross the threshold, if they can help you. Now, that’s something for which I would be happy to pay £8.99.

PK



Thursday, 7 September 2017

Naming Wines: Let's Use Science!

So the dream of letting Artificial Intelligence design wine names has come a fraction closer: I have been in correspondence with the excellent Janelle Shane, wondering if her neural networks (which have had such success generating paint charts and craft beers) might work with wines. Her take on it? At this early stage, yes, all things are possible. There is some nervousness about stepping outside the world of, basically, Anglo-Saxon nomenclature; so Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and America are going to provide the basic structures - although some snippets of French may eventually creep in. Also, to work at all properly the neural networks need lots and lots of existing names to learn from, hundreds of the things. Back to me, and the next question: How to create such a list?

After an hour of persistent thought, I only have one idea, which is to physically comb through the lists of the big suppliers and supermarkets, churning through their Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and North America entries by hand, copying and pasting until my head swims. Oh, and some English wines, why on earth not? Well, I can already see why not, given that it seems utterly counter-intuitive to cobble together a list of brand names painstakingly by hand, like some piece worker from the nineteenth century, only to deliver the fruits of this drudging manual harvest to a cutting-edge twenty-first century machine and have it instantaneously translated into The Future. I might as well go out and pick the sloes from the hedges, it'd be just as time-consuming and tedious, but at least I'd have some sloes at the end, which I could then turn into a drink. Although on the debit side of that idea, most of the sloe gin I've ever made has tasted terrible, so perhaps the comparison is less watertight than I think. And, on the other hand, if I do go through the list, name-picking by hand, then maybe, just maybe, Ms. Shane's miracle program will create something so new and vibrant that the whole world will be enriched, just a tiny bit, and God knows we need something to brighten our days. My sacrifice, I start to tell myself, will be for the good of mankind.

After that, of course, I experience another small crisis when it occurs to me that I will have to taxonomise the wines as I go, but what taxonomy to use? I mean, I could just do all reds and all whites and leave it at that, a more or less random selection. But in her terrific craft beer re-stylings, Ms. Shane has already pinned the beers down to categories such as IPA, Stout and so on. A mere shopping-list of wines names isn't going to be enough to keep her happy, I can feel it. So how to divvy them up in anticipation? By principal grape? By price? By sub-region (although that sounds unnecessarily granular to me, all that Barossa Valley stuff)? By style - robust, medium-bodied, lightweight? By reference to topographical feature as mentioned on the label (valley, creek, ridge, hill, river) or colour (yellow, silver, ink, limestone, unless that's topography) or animal (dog, eagle, kangaroo, bird, whale, horse, I could go on) or even simply alcoholic strength? And what about all those characterful place names which to some extent already sound like fabrications - Kangarilla, Waimea, Oxney, Boschendal - how do I insinuate them into the Big List? Would the craft beer experiment have got off the ground if the neural networks had been given Bofferding as a building-block? How, come to think of it, could anything sound less plausible than Wirra Wirra Church Block, currently available at Tesco?

No, hold on, the thing is, given the amount of dumb toil ahead of me, I want as little mental involvement as possible. I don't want to have to check the alcohol count or find out if it's an easy-drinking medium white or even make great inroads into the grape variety. So it's going to be country and that's that. All right, country and colour.

I make a start. After about fifteen minutes with an on-line supermarket wine list, I have twenty-seven reds. I would have done it in ten minutes, but for the fact that the formatting on the web page kept invading my basic document and I had to scrub out images of bottles and presumptuous text alignments. Assuming I get better at it: twelve minutes for every twenty-five names; that's a hundred and twenty-five names in an hour, not too bad. Two, two and a half hours should give me most of what I need, assuming that there are two hundred and fifty-odd different Anglophone wines out there. Oh, and then I'll have to check for duplications. Still. Two and a half hours. That's less than it takes to watch Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris from beginning to end, so really, how hard can it be?

CJ


Thursday, 31 August 2017

Spot the difference?

A fish supper in the offing, and 25% off six bottles at Sainsbury’s – game on! So I check the Guardian’s incomparable Fiona Beckett, who recommends the “lusciously creamy” McGuigan Founder’s Series Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2015. “Snap it up if you ever see it on promotion,” she says.   So I make it snappy.

McGuigan, eh? CJ territory. He once inflicted upon me some eye-watering McGuigan Shiraz, for which they must have interpreted from their namesake boxer the term 'pugilistic'. So I am perhaps understandably cautious. 


But I trust the magnificent Ms Beckett completely, and approach the hitherto neglected display of their wines. And I experience the wariness of a traveller presented with a foreign currency, whose banknotes all seem to look the same.

Her recommendation sits proudly on the top shelf. With a unique bottle and distinctive label, it stands out. And of course, she is spot on; it turns out to be a rich, creamy Chardonnay, a smooth and tasty Bridget Jones comfort blanket.

But what astonishes me is the array of barely distinguishable McGuigan Chardonnays on the shelves below.

There was their Estate at £4.95; their Classic at £5.50; and their Reserve at £6. Their Founder’s was on promotion indeed at £9 (reduced from £11); and then there was their Shortlist at £14. That’s five Chardonnays, with a £9 difference in price per bottle, or 260%, between bottom and top.

Now, I’m old enough to remember when European wines were considered “difficult”, when people thought it was hard to grasp the difference between Burgundy and Bordeaux, let alone their various classifications. So forgive me if I’m somewhat baffled by things at this lower, New World end of the market; but there, I thought, matters were supposed to be more straightforward.

These McGuigan brands, to me, are meaningless. Bin, Classic, Reserve, Estate, Release, Private; they are all just interchangeable terms used to suggest quality in wine. None sounds inherently superior to another. You could equally well combine them; Classic Release; Reserve Bin; Classic Reserve; Private Bin. Oh, they’ve actually used that one.

And the labels are as neutral as their names, just a kaleidoscope of parts. If there’s some hierarchy of white over silver or vice versa, it’s lost on me. Does a lion suggest better quality than a signature? What about half a lion, like a misplaced wax seal? Or a silver lion? Or a lion’s signature?

No, the only guidance discernible to me is one of price. This one must be “better” (whatever that means) because it costs 50p more. Like the famous Class sketch,  it looks down on one, but up to another. It sits on a higher shelf.

Now, if you go to Volkswagen, it’s pretty clear why a Golf is more expensive than a Polo. And in case you can’t see the difference, there are specifications to explain why one costs more than the other. So I turn for similar guidance to the UK website  where McGuigan list details of 66 – count ‘em, 66! – wines, including 10 pure Chardonnays alone.

The Founder’s Series, I discover, is “a celebration of the four generations of the McGuigan family, who have made wine their life… the pursuit of producing quality wine… this spirit and commitment to sourcing quality fruit”.

Similar, then, to the Signature brand, of which it says: “The McGuigan family has been making great quality Australian wine for generations, sourcing premium fruit from Australia’s best wine regions. The Signature range is a reflection of this history and commitment to creating wines of great quality and style”

While the Family Release, the clue perhaps being in the name, identifies itself with “The McGuigan Family love affair with wine [which] has passed through the generations and continues today with chief winemaker, Neil McGuigan. Family Release stands as Neil’s recognition of the McGuigans that came before him.”

Credit to one’s forefathers and all that, but that’s quite a lot of indistinguishable celebration, recognition and reflection of effectively the same thing.

And what about taste?

You might, for example, want to choose between the Bin Chardonnay, and the Signature Chardonnay. Best of luck with that. The Bin “is a fresh and crisp Chardonnay with flavours of white peach and ripe nectarine. It has a nice fresh finish and lingers on the palate.” Whereas the Signature “is a fresh and vibrant Chardonnay with flavours of white peach and ripe nectarine. It has a nice crisp finish and lingers on the palate.“

Or you might be weighing up the Classic against the Family Release.  The Classic: “This fresh and fruity Chardonnay has intense stone fruit and citrus character, complimented by subtle oak and a crisp finish.”. Against the Family Release: “This fresh and fruity Chardonnay has intense stone fruit and citrus character, complimented by a subtle oak and a crisp finish.” Don’t even try – the descriptions are, in fact, identical.

So how do you choose which one you want? Not by interchangeable name or undifferentiated label, by indistinguishable heritage, by similar or indeed identical tasting notes.

Presumably, you decide by price, the one clearly differentiating factor. And trust that the wine improves in corresponding increments of 50p a bottle.

Never was that old saying more appropriate – you pays your money, and you takes your choice. Of shelves.

PK 




Thursday, 24 August 2017

Co-Op Off-chance: Bonarda Shiraz

So I need a couple of bottles of cheap grog and the only place open at this time of day in distant Hampshire on a Sunday evening is the neighbourhood Co-Op. We also, as it turns out, need butter, milk, two pounds of steak, cake, three days' worth of salad, olive oil, cashew nuts, washing-up liquid, our own weight in potatoes, paper napkins, just about everything, in fact. My wife starts talking emotionally about asparagus, but I think we'll be pressed to find much more than a factory pasty out here in the sticks.

Turns out I'm wrong, yet again, and the Co-Op - which is no bigger than the cab of a Transit van and full of other customers, too - has, amazingly, most of what we need and several things we don't. I aim myself like a javelin at the wine end of the shop and come back brightly clutching a South African Chardonnay-Viognier mix and a bottle of Argentinian Bonarda Shiraz; both in the right indigent price range and with screw tops and cheerful packaging.

Much later, I get to drink them. The Bonarda Shiraz is like any regular gluey, halitotic, buttonholing Argentinian red but with just a hint of self-control: something to do with this Bonarda stuff, about which I know nothing? Likewise the Chardonnay-Viognier (why the hyphen? The red has to get by without one) is not only fine in its way, it's a tiny bit more assertively refreshing than I usually expect from a crumbum discount supermarket Chardonnay. That extra Viognier goodness, presumably.

By now, of course, I am completely in thrall to the Co-Op, who have not only got me out of a wineless jam, but have produced a nice white and introduced me to Bonarda, which is apparently taking Latin America by storm, enough even to outdo the loathsome Malbec in the easy-drinking reds section. I then wonder why I don't normally come across these very slightly intriguing two-grape mashups in my regular wine drinking. Apart from the odd Syrah/Grenache or Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, most of the time I seem to be slumped in a drab monoculture of Tempranillo or Sangiovese or Shiraz or Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir, or whatever. Can it only be the Co-Op hosting such products?

Given that, for reasons beyond my control, Waitrose is my default wine supermarket, I decide to check their listings to see if there's any evidence to back up my suspicions. Well: at my end of the price spectrum, yes, there are an awful lot of one-stop Merlots and Shirazes and Malbecs and the odd Cabernet Sauvignon; once, a Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz mix, but not much else. A bit more variety among the whites, with a Chardonnay/Viognier on special offer and a Chenin Blanc/Pinot Grigio which might or might not be a good thing, but elsewhere it's still kind of unidirectional - Soave, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, only starting to show a bit of initiative up in the near-£8 range, with a Picpoul de Pinet (actually quite nice when it's on offer) and a Muscadet (ditto), but nothing genuinely experimental. So, to an extent, my doubts are confirmed.

Sainsbury's (my other default winemart) is worryingly similar, only a cheap Merlot/Grenache and a less cheap Sauvignon Blanc/Semillion doing much to ring the changes. I can't face trawling through Tesco and all the rest to see what intriguing novelty blends they might have - which leaves me where I started, wondering only if I've made some fundamental good/bad category error and the Co-Op stuff which I thought was refreshingly different was merely a) different b) so incredibly and unexpectedly welcome on a Sunday in the provinces that I would have loved it if it had tasted like the inside of a foot spa. Also worrying that I've been duped by the guile of marketing shills into believing that I was getting something brightly toothsome to drink when in fact I was being fobbed off with assortments of under-the-radar wine that no-one could find a use for, tipped into more conventional and therefore marketable grape varieties merely in order get rid of the oddball stuff while at the same time bulking the acceptable stuff out.

Before my head starts throbbing with the involuted deviousness of it all, I decide to stop and take a stand: yes, this drink was affordable, timely and tasty; trying to second-guess the motives of the Co-Op is not only mean-spirited, but futile; let's just be grateful for small mercies, while at the same time, making a mental note to look out for wines that dare, in their own ways, to be cost-effectively slightly different. And now, on to more important matters.

CJ
http://amzn.to/2tlJ9dy




Thursday, 17 August 2017

From D'Or to door – it's wine through the post

It’s years since anything remotely interesting has come through our letterbox, as it seems that the only people who use the postal service nowadays are charities, estate agents and Virgin Media.

So how about wine?  A flat, plastic ‘pouch’ of wine through your letterbox? This is the premise of Decanting Club, whose subscribers are posted a 150ml sample of wine each week. 

There will be those who see this as an ideal way of “exploring” different wines, which can then be ordered by the bottle. Then again others, of an indolent nature, will see it as an ideal way of drinking wine without going further than their hallway.

Sot let us persevere with this concept. After all,
it would appear to remove the anxiety associated with courier deliveries. And which of my generation, raised on Ice Pops in plastic tubes, will even need a glass?

The trouble is, there is something disturbingly surgical about these pouches. The red looks and feels like a blood transfusion bag. The white as if it should be attached to a pole as a saline drip. Or, worse, to the receiving end of a catheter.

One of my first thoughts was that they could be an ideal way to smuggle wine into venues where bottles are banned. Concerts, football matches, airline flights etc. On a cursory pat-down body search, it would just feel like the blubber of overweight. Or, for a certain section of the wine-drinking ‘community’, a breast implant.

Unfortunately you would then have to get your pouch open. There is a knack to opening plastic packaging, which I do not possess. Witness the half-destroyed blocks of cheese, or the frozen peas bursting from their bags as I wrench them open. Sealed to convey wine through the post without leakage, it will clearly take more than my fingers and teeth to open a wine pouch. – and in the present climate I do not intend trying to get a pair of scissors past that same security search.

So home drinking it is, then. Where I did try drinking the wine directly from the pouch, and made a complete mess of a perfectly good shirt. You try drinking from the corner of a plastic bag.

Does the food-grade plastic taint the wine? No. That concern surely faded years ago, when we started drinking water out of plastic bottles, where I suspect taint would be rather more noticeable than in an industrial-strength Red.

I was posted a perfectly serviceable, fruity yet taut Vinho Verde, which they then sell at a slightly ambitious £10.92 a bottle; and a repellent Valpolicella (£12.59), with a bouquet of stuffed toys and  bizarre notes of peanut and cardboard. But the intention is that you drink it (from a glass) in the week it arrives; do not assume, like me, that any modern wine packaging, like wine boxes and sealed goblets, is all about preserving wine indefinitely. This one may have suffered while I was distracted drinking other wines from actual bottles.

The Decanting Club costs from £4.50 to £6.50 per 150ml pouch, depending on your subscription. This, they say, is “cheaper than a glass of wine in a pub”, which it probably is. It depends on your pub. And the size of their glasses.

But £6.50 in the supermarket would get you an entire bottle, with just as good a chance of liking the result. Only, if you do like it, you can then drink the full 750ml. You can cook with the rest if you don’t. Or, if you’re CJ, drink it all the same.

Of course, these are not wines you will find in the supermarket. Which reinforces the idea that you are “exploring wine”, by trying “rare grapes from undiscovered regions”, and sharing details on their website. It’s a poor substitute for the sort of “exploring” of “undiscovered regions” I was brought up on, Boys’ Own stories of proper explorers, like Livingstone, Scott and Shackleton. But then I suppose their kind of exploring has become somewhat tiresome (“Oh no, not another unaided charity walk to the South Pole with a novel kind of hindrance…”). So we’ll have to make do with staying on our sofas and exploring the world of wine. That or the world of Haribo.

With an increasing number of wine merchants offering Enomatic tasting in store, there is competition in the sampling market. But the idea of wine coming through your letterbox each week? It’s all good fun, until someone loses an eye.

But in the end, of course, you’ll still be buying and getting a case of wine delivered, which will inevitably arrive when you’re out or in the toilet.

Unless they post you 60 pouches through your letterbox instead.


PK 



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Thursday, 10 August 2017

Unpacking: Minus Tricastin

So back we come from the shattering heat of the South of France, the car weighed down on its springs by cheap espadrilles and bottles of French shower gel, and recollect the following:

- Why does anyone bother to maintain a vineyard? We rumbled, stupefied by our own air-conditioning, past hectare after hectare of the things, all baking in the dust, all perfectly green despite the near-drought conditions, but thought: this must be about the most arduous crop you could choose to rear, notwithstanding sorghum, rice or alfalfa. The ground the vines stand in is either an interminable grey clay (in the wet) or a crumbling parched mantrap, painfully impossible to walk across, whether kept free of weeds or blanketed in the things. The fruit hang at knee-height, sheer back-breaking agony to tend. They require constant care and inspection, but even the most persevering cultivator will wake up one day to find a whole year's worth gone, chomped by a tiny insect or overwhelmed by blight. And if you manage to harvest the grapes (please God with one of those mechanical harvesters) all that happens is that your pride and joy disappears into a huge tank along with everybody else's and the local co-operative takes the credit. Yes, vineyards look lovely, but they're madness, just madness.

- I hadn't properly taken on board the fact that the wines of the Tricastin region are now known generically as Grignan-les-Adhemar. Of course, when it was pointed out to me that the whopping great nuclear power station at Tricastin had more or less screwed the area's branding, it made sense. I gazed down on the nuclear site, plus the TGV line, plus the A7 autoroute and the Rhône itself, from one of the delightful hilltop villages on the eastern side and had it recalled to me that in July 2008, nearly five thousand gallons of Uranium solution were accidentally released into the Tricastin enviroment; and that was the end of Côteaux du Tricastin as we knew it, a pained reinvention as Grignan-les-Adhemar following not long after. So that was where it went, I marvelled, realising that, yes indeed, I hadn't seen any around for a while. The other thing is about this is that no-one, not even the producers, can get on with the new name. And if the French find it a mouthful, what chance have we got? And - see above - how would you feel about your precious vines - which might, just for once, be in a state of rare perfection - being rendered unsellable by your own Government's nuclear programme?

- When we got to Calais - for the boat back - I couldn't find a wine warehouse to get some cheap grog in. Rather, my wife glimpsed one on the outskirts in what struck me as a slightly unpropitious spot, so I announced that we would press on towards the ferry terminal because there were bound to be a couple more at that end of town, which made more sense to me, insofar as anything ever does. Then we got to that end of town, only to find a hellish new road layout, kilometres of reinforced fencing with barbed wire on the top, a load of French squaddies wearing fatigues and carrying machine guns, and that was that. What was once the Calais Jungle has been turned into a little piece of off-limits Nevada and so, it seems, has everything else. Too late to turn back to try and find the original warehouse and anyway, has the Booze Cruise had its day? My Brother-in-law swears not, but I remember a time when you couldn't move in Calais for roadside hoardings and giant parking areas and huge, tatty sheds, all dedicated to crummy wines. But now?

- On the other hand, once back, I discovered that the completely excellent Janelle Shane - about whom I've already written - has been hard at work again with her neural networks, this time coming up with a slew of devastingly right-on, completely artificially-induced, beer names. So many terrific ones to choose from, but my top five are:

Juicy Dripple IPA
The Actoompe (a Strong Pale Ale)
Cherry Boof Cornester (ditto)
O'Busty Irish Red (an Amber Ale)
Pimperdiginistic The Blacksmith W/Cherry Stout

Sheer genius: and, yes, the wines demand her attentions even more than before. I am going to get in touch with her right now and see what she has to say. If wine is to have any future at all, this - the world of neural networks - is, I am convinced, where it will lie. Such excitement!

CJ



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Thursday, 3 August 2017

Fresh, tasty, authentic, vine-ripened… wine?

Tasty, home-made, hand-picked… food products seem to have adopted a whole range of product descriptions, presumably after the lengthy customer research which food marketers can afford. In some cases (see pic) these are presumed to be such potent messages that they dwarf even the flavour or the brand of the product. If they’re “hand-cooked”, who cares what they are? 

So. if these food marketing messages are such customer magnets, could some of them possibly work for wine?





 Home-made
I have never understood why a biscuit made at home would necessarily be better than one made in a biscuit factory. After all, the biscuit factory is dedicated to making biscuits, whereas a home must also function as a hotel, storage facility and entertainment complex. The biscuit factory has skilled, experienced biscuit makers; home has me.

And who would want a home-made television, say, or home-made shoes? Or home-made condoms, with their concomitant product, home-made fingerless washing-up gloves? No, I think we can do without “home-made” products, and that absolutely applies to wine. No-one is going to pay for home-made wine. There are far better, dedicated places to make wine than in someone’s home. Unless you’re talking about the Bordeaux home of the Rothschilds.






Vine-ripened
Unlike tomatoes, wines do not make a song and dance about the fact that the obvious place to ripen their grapes is on their vine. Effectively, all wine is vine-ripened. It’s hardly a selling point. It only raises the issue of where and how the other tomatoes are ripened.







Tasty
This childish epithet has always troubled me. What are the alternatives? Tasteless? And its crude simplicity would sit particularly unhappily with the supposed sophistication of wine. Imagine grand Burgundies and distinguished clarets, all shelved under a sign shouting “Tasty!” With perhaps a little shelf off to the side for Pinot Grigio.






   
Essential
Wine is essential.
Move on.

















Hand-picked
The idea of hand-picking takes on completely different connotations when it is on food packaging as opposed to a UKIP leaflet. And of course hand-picking is equally attractive for wine, where the mass-production alternative has a vehicle trundling along the lines, effectively hoovering the grapes off the vines – along with any birds, small rodents, insects etc who happen to be in the vine at the time. “Tasty”. Whereas at Domaine de la Romanée Conti, the grapes are not only hand-picked, but hand-sorted and individually examined for health. So hand-picked wine? Yes please – if not at £3,000 a bottle




Fresh
What, like Beaujolais Nouveau? 

 






 
 

Specially selected
Not just ‘selected’, like everything else on the shelves. Funnily enough, when this epithet appears on wine labels, “specially selected” is always in the cheaper ranges, never the good wines which discerning customers specially select for themselves. 








Responsibly sourced
Have you been sourcing wine irresponsibly? Buying it from the corner shop? Buying wine from the property said to be ‘next door to’ the celebrated vineyard? Ordering one of those ‘mystery’ cases, which ‘might’ contain bottles worth some phenomenal amount of money, but will probably contain the bottles which couldn’t otherwise be sold? If you don't source your wines responsibly, you deserve all you’ve got coming.

("Handcrafted, responsibly sourced salad"? Give me strength…) 




Authentic
What actually is it that makes a pasta “authentic”? Italian flour? Italian eggs? Combined in a factory in the Midlands, but by someone called Elena? By these loose kinds of criteria, pretty much all wine is authentic wine. Unless it has another term attached, like “Chocolate”, “Fruit” or “Alcohol-Free”.

Or, of course, if it’s fake. It’s not just expensive wine which gets faked; the authorities once uncovered a line of fake Jacob’s Creek. The bottles could be distinguished because they had misspelt ‘Australia’ as “Austrlia” on the label, a mistake many of us might make after a few bottles of Jacob’s Creek. No wonder they didn’t attempt to fake Trockenbeerenauslese.



Market
Ah yes, “market” produce, always a winner. Market fruit, with its attractive manhandled bruising; and market vegetables, quite possibly past their sell-by date but you wouldn’t know because they haven’t got one. Call any corner of a modern city a Market and you’re quids in, as long as you take your produce out of its hygenic plastic wrapping and display it on a slab of wood.

But what kind of market might we be talking about for wine? Perhaps one of those weekly affairs in a little French town, with local wines for just a few Euro? Oh yes! Count us in! Just beware of “market” wine labelled with a bit of brown paper and only the word VIN in felt-tip. They’ve probably just soaked the labels off some fake Jacob’s Creek.

PK



Thursday, 27 July 2017

Clutter

So I'm picking through the factor 15 and the inappropriate shorts and the lengthy novels in translation, all the crap one has to take on holiday, and I think to myself, well, this is a time of departures and interventions, as good a time as any to check the bookmarks in my browser and throw out the stuff that I meant to find a use for but never, for whatever reason, did. 

I want that fresh, unencumbered Glade feeling, free trom things like Drip-Free Wine Bottle Makes Us More Grateful For Science Than Ever Before, one of those headlines which draws you up short at the same time as it leaves you with no inclination to find out more (a physicist at Brandeis University, as it happens, who's inserted a two-millimetre anti-drip groove in the neck of the bottle, who'd have thought?) while reminding you at the same time that this story fits somewhere into the larger pantheon of non-spill, non-drip, non-spatter, non-stain, non-marking, non-smear, non-streak products whose existence makes up at least a third of the internet. 'As yet,' concludes the HuffPo, one of several sites to cover the story, 'there's no news on whether the product will be adopted by wine makers'.

Similarly, How Women Are Changing Champagne sounds appealing, but adds pretty much nothing to the compendium of women-changing-the-face-of-wine stories which have been floating around for, what? A decade? A century? 'The rise of women winemakers will certainly change champagne,' apparently, 'though exactly how is yet to be seen.' Why did I think there was something worthwhile in this? I mean it's always good to celebrate the increasing importance that women play in industries traditionally dominated by men, but I can't help thinking that I allowed myself to be suckered in by some kind of human interest story that wasn't really there. Or worse, that I let myself be beguiled by the idea that something might be remarkable simply because it's done by a woman.

Rather as I allowed myself to be slurped into a micro-story involving some very rich guy called T. J. Rodgers (who also cropped up here, as well as lots of other places), the main eye-catcher being, in all honesty, the word billionaire, rather than the fancy tech he's using to make an impossibly perfect Pinot Noir. What do I really care that he has a mathematical formula to deal with every element of production, including 'root density, siphon run-offs, wine press effectiveness'? I don't even know what these terms mean. Out it goes, along with an Andrew Jefford threnody concerning the impossibility of wine writing ever positing a true equivalent to literary writing ('supportive intimacy' is a great phrase, though) and this chestnut - from the Evening Standard - about how drinking wine may be good for your brain. What's the ratio of wine-is-good-for-you stories to wine-is-bad? About two to one in favour of wine-is-bad? Someone, perhaps at Brandeis University, will know.

And so it goes on, until only two bookmarks remain; but these I keep. Both are cognate, in that they fool around with the idea of artificially-generated word formation - a little niche of AI which will eventually put all writers and journalists and, indeed, Sediment, out of business. The first is the legendary Brooklyn Bar Menu Generator, randomly creating on-trend menus for imaginary hipster eateries (Pan-seared water as a starter from your local Gerritson and Stockon, for instance). The second is this excellent blog from a young California scientist, who uses some rather deeper coding to create names from scratch. Paint colours is a particularly fruitful area (Sandbork, Flumfy Gray, Nungle, Shy Bather, Parp Green, Breedly Burf, to name but six) but she's also done action figures, heavy metal bands, bad recipe ideas and terrible Broadway musicals (my pick of the last? The Wither Bean, followed by The Burking Ding of 190 Bour Dadige, a comedy).

You can see where this is going. Let the neural network loose on wines; let AI come up with some really Twenty-First Century drinks. Dr Janelle Shane, the person responsible for the latter website, actually invites suggestions for her next spree - the only problem being (for me, at any rate) that she needs a plaintext dataset of 1000+ existing names for the AI to use as self-training material. But wine! It demands to be done! Does anyone happen to have a plaintext dataset of 1000+ existing names? How hard can it be to get one? Will it be waiting for me when I get back? 

CJ

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