Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Sediment Christmas Wine Selection: Week Two

After last week’s set of shoddy suggestions from CJ, I can only imagine the foreboding of his friends and family, who now realise what they will have to suffer drinking on Christmas Day. As I have said to him before, things have come to a pretty pass when you spend more on your turkey than on your wine.

No, this is the time of year when you feel that you can  sweep into a wine merchant that sounds like a chartered surveyors, a wine merchant posh enough to have an ampersand in its name. A chap in a striped shirt will say “Can I help  you, sir?”, in that manner which suggests “Can I help you to find the other place you are clearly supposed to be?”

But this time, you can reply “I hope so – I’m looking for a bottle of Pol Roger…” And he will smile knowingly, and you will feel that you have earned your right to be there.

So of course, my Christmas Day will begin with Pol Roger White Foil Brut, because it was Churchill’s favourite champagne and, like him, “My tastes are simple. I am easily satisfied with the best.” Churchill supposedly had 42,000 bottles opened over his lifetime, but for my Christmas Day a few less may suffice.
If someone objects to CJ’s budget Cava, he’s got no-one to blame but himself, but if anyone disapproves of my choice, I can always lay the blame on Winston. And while I’m trying to conquer the cooking, I can come out with his quote about champagne: “In victory I deserve it, in defeat I need it”.

(Of course, you don’t have to get your Pol Roger from a posh wine merchant. You can get it from Majestic. But the chap serving you might be wearing a polyester fleece…)

Let’s not get carried away with this “traditional” business. I mean, I don’t spend Christmas prancing around in a periwig. But on the other hand, a screwcap New World red is simply not on. A screwcap wine is about as traditional as a vacuum-packed turkey.

And again, Christmas is a rare opportunity to stroll into a proper wine merchant’s, and boldly ask for a bottle of claret. Not a bottle of Bordeaux; use a proper, Olde English term for a proper Olde English occasion. I shall leave it to your better judgment as to whether or not you add “my good man”.

A wine merchant might not know what you mean if you wander in forsoothing and gadzooksing, but he’ll know what you mean by claret alright. He’ll know you’re someone who appreciates tradition. And so will your guests – which matters, because if you don’t appreciate tradition, why are you having a traditional Christmas dinner?

You’ll want a wine you can decant for the Christmas table, because I find it’s one of the rare meals for which you can put out a decanter and no-one will accuse you of being pretentious. So you also need a wine which will benefit from a bit of breathing space; unlike CJ’s rubbish, whose flavour uses the excuse of meeting the open air to disappear faster than Santa’s reindeer. You’re looking for a wine with a bit of clout. Of course this is the time for something like my treasured remaining Leoville Barton 1989, but if you’re looking at under £20, something like a Larose-Trintaudon 2007 will retain a sense of sophistication, while stunning the range of flavours in a Christmas dinner into submission.

CJ asks why on earth you would need a bottle of white for Christmas dinner. The simple fact is that while he is still wrangling with his recalcitrant oven, civilised folk are having a civilised starter, like smoked salmon for example, which cries out for a nice bottle of white. I’m not as precious about the New World when it comes to whites, and something like First Press Napa Chardonnay from Waitrose is half the price of its Burgundy equivalent, but has the richness and complexity to go with both the starter and the pud. And it will go with the cold cuts on Boxing Day if there’s any left. If…

In the interests of symmetry with his own post, I am not permitted to stray into the contentious territory of vintage port. CJ seems to object to it because, and I quote, “It is not 1908.” Well, it might as well be at my abode, given the dinner table decorum and the talk of Winston Churchill, so we’ll be finishing off properly with port. As I’ve said, this is the one day when it’s all about tradition; so woe betide anyone who passes it the wrong way.

Haven’t you spent enough on presents already? bleats CJ. Well, probably not for yourself. What better way of demonstrating the generosity and largesse of Christmas, while simultaneously treating yourself, than indulging in some splendid wines? Go on, go for it – and have a great Christmas.


Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Sediment Christmas Wine Selection: Week One

So we are where we are, with Christmas only two weeks away, and we need to start getting the drink in, because nothing is going to get us through the unmitigated horror of the Festive Season except being very lightly oiled nearly all the time. The good news? The crisis contains the seeds of its own resolution: we are necessarily talking quantity here, not quality - no-one is going to thank you for serving up the Chateau Palmer at Christmas, the whole thing is a gastric warzone from start to finish - and this gives us all the licence we need to head straight for the bargain section of the nearest supermarket/cornershop/petrol station and do the business right there.

What do we need? We need sparkling; we need red; and we need a bit of white. Thus -

Sparkling: Tesco Cordoniu Cava, for which I recently paid £7.49 a bottle, and even that seems excessive, although not as excessive as what they seem to be asking today. What am I going to do with it? Get it absolutely frozen, so cold it might as well be screenwash additive, and dispense it in a hurry, and often. Any complaints about the taste? Throw in some crème de cassis or noisette and remind the complainant that there is more than one use for a turkey baster.

Red: We need a ton of this stuff, for when everyone sits down at the table and gets stuck into the (by now) overdue Christmas Dinner. But what, exactly? After all, it's going to be paired with sprouts, stuffing, Utility gravy, congealing Pigs in Blankets, awful things in their own right, only tolerated because of the time of year. So my two top picks turn out to be

Aldi Chilean Carmenère - Gooseberry nose, nice overlay of caramel and chocolate, well-controlled acidity, not much finish, slight throb in the temples and an odd whiff of gunsmoke at the very end, but at £4.99 a bottle, this is the way forward, only challenged by

Sainsbury's Winemaker's Selection Corbières - an absolute steal on the day I paid £4.75 a bottle for it, generating a nice sensation of armpits on the nose, some good tannins, a hint of brush cleaner, perilously little finish, but on the other hand a fabulous colour, positively imperial in its depth and murky richness.

White: Why do we even need a white? I know a dessert wine quite often makes its way onto the table at the same time as the pudding/mince pies, but realistically, everything calls for one of the reds above. Except: not everyone drinks red. It's Christmas. The obscure Auntie Sis has come to town; she only likes white; you've forgotten to get any. What to do? The obvious: rush round the corner to the newsagent or petrol station (God knows what time of day this is when she reveals her preference, I'm assuming the supermarkets have shut) and get a bottle of Blossom Hill Chardonnay, priced around £5.99, + or -. I have to admit that this is weird drink, with elements of nasal spray and marshmallows, a fugitive implication of grapes, a kind of terrible brightness about it, like an American TV news network. But this does not matter, because Sis, who only drinks white, who drinks it with rare roast beef and venison flanks, doesn't care as long as she's got some to console her through the long flatulent orgy that is Christmas Day. 

And relax.

Next Week: PK's more portentous take on the same thing, but honestly, I wouldn't waste your money. I mean, haven't you spent enough on presents already?


Thursday, 4 December 2014

Sonic Decanter; Lidl Rioja

So there are times when I wonder if this isn't the moment to start up a Sediment test lab, to catalogue the various ways in which the wine drinker can improve his or her experience of the drink without spending any long-term real money or having to buy any big-ticket wines

I mean, so far, and quite without any proper co-ordination, PK and I have played around with a mug, a pichet, a Riedel Tasting Glass, a wine aerator, a Duralex tumbler, plus some variations on the DIY angle, just to see what easy, low-rent, low-cost, ameliorations can be achieved in the wine/drinker interface. At least two (Duralex tumber; Riedel Tasting Glass) have turned out to be more or less guaranteed to lift the experience of drinking - one by wrapping it in a psychologically benevolent envelope; the other, apparently, by messing with the physiology of consumption, although anyone who spends £25 on a wine glass is going to have to justify that little indulgence any way they can, physiology or not, and I remain unconvinced, but that's by the by. Anyhow, every encounter with wine is mutable: the wine itself being nothing less than an opportunity to deal in sensations.

To prove the point, it turns out that scientists have properly stormed the winerack, with the creation of the SonicDecanter - a miraculous device from, obviously, the United States, which treats wine as merely the first term in a narrative, using ultrasound to Make every wine better.

How does it work? We know this much:

- It uses patented technology
- Ultrasonic energy transforms the molecular and chemical structure of wine
- It softens tannins, esters and polyphenols
- You have to put a bit of water in the base to get it to work, stick an unopended bottle of wine in, then press a white button for whites and a red for reds
- No decanting, no aerating. It takes twenty minutes to soften up a red
- You can control it from your smartphone
- Gizmodo reviewed it, declaring that I Zapped My Wine With an Ultrasonic Decanter and It Tasted Pretty Good; while hollered Great Results in Wine Tasting and a lot of other fabulous things
- The inventors went to Kickstarter to get enough funds to start production, and in no time had hit their target of $85,000. Last time I looked, they were heading for $140,000. There is clearly a need for this device

It seems that the vast majority of wine bought in The States costs $10 a bottle or less - pretty close to the £6 watershed we observe over here. Anything, therefore, which can make $10 wine taste like $20 is evidently going to be up there with remote car unlockers and disposable razors in terms of sheer utility. Projected UK price for the Sonic Decanter is around £150, which means it will have to double the perceived value of about 25 bottles of £6 wine before it pays for itself. Which is nothing. Why, only the other day, I bought a couple of bottles of Lidl Rioja at £3.99, both of which could have done with a good two hours in the Decanter, given that my red-eyed tasting notes reveal massive tannins, road re-surfacing, some flypaper, vanilla and crisps finish before concluding on a dying fall of alcohol haze like standing under a flightpath. Of course, at £3.99 a go, I'd have to buy 37.5 bottles before the Sonic Decanter cleared its inital costs, so there may be a law of inverse pleasurability in operation, but I think we can afford to be pragmatic.

The question then becomes philosophical, rather than economic or purely technological. How much does it matter that my £12-tasting bottle was only made with the care and attention of a £6 bottle? If breaking out the Sonic Decanter is the wine equivalent of using studio magic to make a terrible singer sound like Etta James, is it fundamentally an imposture? Is it a typically American reduction of distinctive craft skills to an approximated universality, which, in time, will leave us all drinking indivisibly okay reds and whites whether we want to or not? Do we take an objective or subjective view? And what would I have to do to get my hands on a pre-production model? I have no laboratory; but I do have a very old raincoat which, if you half close your eyes, looks a bit like a lab coat. I mean, it's a very light mac.


Thursday, 27 November 2014

Wine and snoring (and other side-effects) – Ricasoli Chianti Classico Riserva 2010

It was the morning after one of our dinner parties. A convivial evening, involving a couple of bottles of the excellent Ricasoli Chianti Classico Riserva 2010, a wine of beauty (which is all ye need to know), after which I had been contentedly dead to the world. I blearily descended to a cluttered kitchen, and asked Mrs K how she had slept.

“You were snoring,” she said, bitterly. “You always snore when you’ve had too much wine.”

Well, this was the first I’d heard about this. Various negative side-effects have been levied in the past against my wine-drinking, but snoring had not been among them. Although it's fair to say that wine has taken the rap for a significant number of my failings, from the medical and social to the financial and psychological.

Belligerence, for example. Plutarch, the Graeco-Roman essayist, said that the openness encouraged by wine led to a better level of debate at the dinner table. “Wine inspirits some men, and raises a confidence and assurance in them,” he wrote, “but not such as is haughty and odious, but pleasing and agreeable.” Which seemed to me a jolly good reason for oiling dinner party conversations with plenty of wine. Then I was enlightened by my good wife that far from being pleasing and agreeable, in fact I was philosophising so aggressively that guests became frightened.

Now I have to be more contemplative over my glass, hoping to stay on the right side of that fine line between judicious thoughtfulness and that other potential side-effect of wine, a surly silence.

Is wine-drinking responsible for extravagance, as I was once accused? I think not. When it comes to wine, one buys what is needed; you wouldn’t accuse a driver of extravagance for buying petrol. 

Besides, it is hard to be extravagant in Sainsbury’s.

In fact, my wine bill is incredibly modest, and no, it is not going to lead to poverty. And if it did, well, there are some less necessary expenditures I could point to, like food, heat and lighting. I can’t say I regret my spending on wine; I have to agree with the late great Vivian Stanshall, who said that “If I had all the money I’ve spent on drink, I’d spend it on drink.”

No, any extravagance is reserved for special occasions. Like Christmas dinner, when, as I recently insisted to CJ, things have come to a pretty pass if you spend more on your turkey than on your wine.

Some supposed side-effects of wine are down to simple misinterpretation. Wine does not, for example, induce selfishness. The wine had spent most of its time the preceding night at my end of the dinner table out of social courtesy. I was assisting the designated driver not to drink, empathising with the chap on painkillers for his back, and acknowledging Mrs K’s modest consumption, by saving them all the embarrassment of declining repeated offers of wine.

And I’m quite happy myself to suffer minor, temporary physical side-effects like stained teeth. They may even pass unnoticed. Unlike an increasing number of television celebrities, I have teeth which reflect a lifetime’s eating and drinking. My teeth are a proper older Englishman’s teeth, the colour of cardboard. They have not been artificially rendered to resemble a mouthful of bathroom tiles.

But this snoring business is obviously affecting someone else. And having looked into ways in which I might deny it, I’m sorry to say that there does seem to be a genuine link between the two. Drinking wine can cause a relaxation in the muscles at the back of the throat. (Which, had I known, perhaps I could have blamed for my growling at guests…) It seems that inspiratory resistance, which causes snoring, can increase fourfold after drinking.

And the only remedy I could find online was that of abstinence. Which sounded to me like the old Tommy Cooper joke about the man who goes to his doctor, and says “My arm hurts when I do this…”, to which the doctor replies “Well, don’t do it then.”

However, Mrs K said that she halted the snoring, with a judicious kick. So I can only conclude that an irrefutable side-effect of my wine drinking must be a deep sleep. Deep enough to render one oblivious to four-fold inspiratory resistance, surely a beneficial side-effect if one sleeps alone. And deep enough to render one oblivious to a kick, if one does not.

Nightcap, anyone?


Thursday, 20 November 2014

Home-made: Seyval Blanc

So I'm having a glass of wine with a pal, and it's rather a nice Seyval Blanc. It's chilled, lightly effervescent, extremely tasty and, to be perfectly frank we're eating a bit of smoked salmon at the same time, and all is good - but here's the thing: our wine is home-made and is served from an old Tesco Cava bottle which arrives stoppered with a crown cap, like a beer bottle. Have we gone mad?

No. The pal - whose wine this is, and who has made it himself, with his own hands and someone else's bottles - is actually a big deal in the wine beer and spirits industry and has a background in biochemistry. He can make beer, he can make wine, he can probably service my car. As he puts it, 'Making wine is a mug's game. It's so easy. Especially in comparison with beer, which is a complete pain'.

Naturally, one casts one's mind back to homemade brews of the past, just about all of them bleakly underwhelming - from the teenage homebrew beer I used to neck, sediment and all, just to get plotzed in a mate's front room; to my Pa-in-Law's ineffable spider wine, made with bits of tendrils, weedkiller and, key ingredient, dead insects. But one would be wrong to lump the Seyval Blanc in with this tragic historical debris.

It's made using the méthode traditionelle, which in this case means not much more than crushing and pressing the grapes (which come from an allotment in the sunny outer suburbs of London; used to be a microvineyard in Sussex, but too much travelling involved), sticking the juice in a steel bin for a week or so before decanting it into a second bin, and leaving it until some time the following year, when the new wine is siphoned off and rudely bottled and stoppered.

Of course, there's more to it than that. 'They all have some acidity correction,' he notes. 'Nothing more than precipitated chalk.' I carefully note down precipitated chalk, back in the school chemistry lab, equally adrift. 'And this one's got glycerine in it, to add to the mouthfeel. When I was making country wines, years ago - ' wines made from anything at all, parsnips, rhubarb, chicken wire ' - I used to tip in a load of glycerine I got from Boots.'

'Uh huh,' I say, as if I understand.

'And at the end, when I'm bottling the wine, I put in a bit more yeast and sugar, to create the effervescence and up the alcohol content. They're English grapes, so they never give much more than 8%. I have to add sugar early on to get it to around 10. On the other hand, the great thing about Seyval Blanc, is that it's idiot-proof. And it makes quite a nice sparkling wine.'

I find myself reflecting helplessly that if that's all there is, why don't we all do it? But I am not a trained biochemist with years of experience in the making and flogging of mass consumer beverages. All I can do is observe that his 2012 homebrew is a bit tart, with that slightly brassy sherryish introduction one rightly fears in hobbyist wine; although it mellows nicely by the finish. The 2011, on the other hand, is just delicious. Bit of moss in the nose, a hint of lychee further along, well-controlled acidity, altogether an extremely shapely drink with a finish that keeps on going. The only thing one has to remember is to decant it first, on account of the fine lees at the bottom of the bottle. Fortunately, my pal has the steadiest pouring hand I have ever seen.

'It gets better the longer you leave it. The yeast dies and releases all sorts of things that improve the flavour. Trouble is, we tend to make a start on it as soon as it's drinkable. After six months, we're saying, this is really good. But by then there are only a couple of bottles left.'

Is it too late to acquire this kind of competence? Have I wasted my life buying drink instead of confecting it myself, in the back yard? I forget to ask the unit cost per bottle, but it can't be too high, even allowing for the expenditure on a couple of stainless steel tanks and a press (which can be also used for apples, pears, some laundry). Oh, but there is a cloud in the sky: 'The biggest pain,' the pal says ruminatively, 'is getting clean bottles. We keep our old champagne bottles and scrounge the rest from friends and neighbours. But do you know, they don't all rinse them out before giving them to us?'

'Some people,' I say. 'Don't tell me we've drunk it all.'


Thursday, 13 November 2014

IKEA wine – their little-known accessory

IKEA keep unusually quiet about this particular product. I found IKEA’s wine in one of its restaurant’s chiller cabinets, but it’s not listed on their Beverages page, like their lagers, or shelved in their food department. And it is not to be confused with IKEA Vinglögg, for that is not wine per se; Vinglögg is described on the label as an “aromatized wine based drink”, and so lies beyond the remit of Sediment, which is not an aromatized wine based drink blog.

No, this is a seemingly proper Cotes de Provence white wine, of undeclared vintage, called, rather oddly, Navicert  – and with the IKEA logo on the label.

It comes in, unusually, a 25cl bottle – that’s 1/3rd of a regular bottle. Trust an IKEA product to employ its own unique measurement system. In their restaurant it’s £2.80 plus VAT, which adds up to what would be a little over £10 for a full bottle. Conveniently, its components do come ready assembled. And with a combination of practicality and economy typical of IKEA, it eschews either cork or Stelvin in favour of a juice-bottle cap.

Now, I could go into the taste of it, using IKEA-related terms to describe aspects such as its construction, its legs, its playful florals and its oak finish. In fact it’s perfectly drinkable; its taste will please most people through being relatively minimal, like everything at IKEA apart from its checkout queues.

But it’s the very concept of offering wine to IKEA customers which deserves some thought.

A traditional Navicert, or ship’s cargo certificate, was meant to aid passage during hostilities, which is of obvious benefit in a trip to IKEA. And a stiff dose of something alcoholic might, like an 19th century explorer of Africa, aid one’s journey around its badly-mapped interior. 

Yes, wine might fuel even more marital rows in the furniture areas; but it could also blur one’s sight, so that one does not spot all those unnecessary but irresistibly cheap items in the strangely compelling Marketplace.

But IKEA wine would surely be of the greatest benefit to its customers if it was incorporated into the actual flatpacks. In the spirit of which, consider the following instructions for use:


Thursday, 6 November 2014

Out Now! The first SEDIMENT book – Sediment: Two Gentlemen and Their Mid-Life Terroirs

SCENE: A Gentlemen's Club

CJ and PK are seated in leather armchairs. 

CJ: I say PK, what’s that in your hand?

PK: This?

CJ: No, the other one.

PK: This, my friend, is the long-awaited first book from Sediment

CJ: A Sediment book?

PK: Yes! Sediment: Two Gentlemen and Their Mid-Life Terroirs. Published by John Blake Books, available from today.

CJ: What a handsome volume – how much does it cost?

PK: £12.99 or less, from Amazon and all good booksellers. Which is less, even, than a bottle of wine.

CJ: Well…

PK: It’s rather like a wine, in fact. It contains Malbec, Cava, Bordeaux and port, some rather shoddy Côtes du Rhône, Le Piat d’Or…

CJ: You intrigue me -

PK: It’s Sediment’s most entertaining thoughts about wine drinking, wine buying and so on, in a convenient hardback form.

CJ: Revised and edited?

PK: As the lawyers insisted.

CJ: It strikes me, PK, that this would be enjoyed by anyone who reads the Sediment blog. 

PK: And it would make the perfect gift for any wine drinker who doesn't read Sediment. 

CJ: Or, indeed, any of their friends or relatives.

PK: It would.

CJ: Tell me what it is again?

PK: The perfect gift, CJ.

Porter: Excuse me gentlemen, but we’ve had reports of a fatuous conversation taking place in the Smoking Room. Are you actually members of this club?