Mad About Malbec

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OK, who’s willing to admit that when they order ‘Pinot’ they mean Grigio – rather than Noir – and when they cry ‘More Sauvignon please waiter’ they expect it to come from New Zealand – rather than its home in the Loire – and every fool knows that Malbec can only come from Argentina!

Once upon a time, when ‘Hector was a pup’, Malbec came from France, and primarily from Cahors, where it’s known as Cot or Auxerrois – not such romantic names I grant you.

It has a long and glorious history, once considered superior to Bordeaux, and exported throughout Europe and Russia as early as the 13th century.

So what went wrong?  Well, first came the protectionist measures inflicted on the Haut Pays by the canny merchants of Bordeaux to promote their own wines. The slight disruption of the Hundred Years War, devastation by phylloxera, and increased market access – due to the railways – to the cheaper wines of the Languedoc.

Isolated and poor – there was little in the Lot – they were still struggling well into the mid 1990’s, and as the only appellation in the South West where both Cabernets are persona non grata, it was searching for an identity somewhere between teeth tingling tannic twig juice, for the old folk, and jammy pap for the modern consumer.

Good vinestock, old clones, low yields, barrel maturation and attention to detail, have ensured that some wines have retained the wisdom of the ages.

Classic Cahors should be inky, rather than black, with a dash of medicinal iodine and jam packed with deep, late summer fruit. Expect touches of fig and liquorice, a lash of spice and tar, and a smattering of herby pepperiness. It’s subtle rather than powerful, classy and understated with a touch of astringency and a lingering acidity to cope with the confit and cassoulet!

I’ll be the first to admit that World Malbec Day is a fiendishly clever marketing ploy to promote the wines of Argentina – but why not buck the trend and go crazy for Cot!

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‘Yesterday When I Was Young’

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‘Yesterday when I was young, the taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue’

I’m often asked what it is that I look for when I taste a wine. I cannot recall my exact answer, but I guess it’s something like the late, great, Charles Aznavour is attempting to describe. Perhaps the search for truth, beauty, love and a return to the simplicity of youth – before life gets in the way and makes things just a little too complex.

L’Orphée is an equal blend of Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc and 50% Syrah and expressive of the terroir and biodynamic practices of Mas Foulaquier’s  eight hectares on the northernmost edge of the Pic Saint Loup. 

The soil itself, as D H Lawrence would describe it: nurse of passions, stage of dramas, and habitat of local gods.

It opens dramatically with a bit of oxygen, so give a bit of air, put down the Baudelaire, and marvel as the earthy and floral aromatics come to the fore, exploding with rich dark blueberries, plum, pepper and violets prior to a lip smackingly sapid and softly generous finish with a stony minerality and plenty of concentration.

Like rain upon the tongue!

‘Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know’

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Just what is it, that causes even the most robust of hearts, to flee in the face of a fizzy red? 

Is it the frothy, foaming, cherryade top? The soft, squishy, whiff of summer pudding? the slightly edgy tannic grip? or simply just a fear of the unknown, together with a lily- livered aversion to risk taking.

Back in the day, when be-pinstriped dinosaurs roamed the earth, Sparkling Shirazwas a hard sell, hand sell, kind of wine – it still is – but that’s not because of it’s quality.

I first tried Sparkling Shiraz, in the Barossa at Rockford – early in the morning, with a large plate of bacon and eggs – and if that’s not swashbuckling enough, there’s nothing madder, badder and more deliciously dangerous with a barbie – not the doll!

In a wine world awash with the dull predictability of poor quality prosecco and pinot grigio, a sense of adventure is sorely lacking.

After a swim across the HellespontGeorge Gordon, Lord Byron – ‘Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean – roll’ – and his old mucker Edward John Trelawny, would quaff foaming tankards of fizzy red  – because as Mary Shelley once said ‘Trelawny lives with the living, and we live with the dead’

Fill your fist with a large one, and sing ….

“Shall Trelawny live? Or shall Trelawny die? Here’s twenty thousand Cornishmen will know the reason why!”

Winnowing

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‘It’s a funny thing, it seems that just before daylight is the darkest hour’…  Ry Cooder.

There is a seldom used word, in old English, that describes the act of lying awake before dawn and worrying, and although the darkest hour doesn’t actually occur just before dawn, it certainly seems to be the time when many of us are haunted by our troubles, uncompleted tasks, unpaid bills and the indiscretions of the night before.

Uhtceare, from oot (the restless hour before dawn) and ceare, pronounced key-are-a (meaning care and sorrow) succinctly describes my post Brexs**t state forcing me to toss, turn and eavesdrop on bin men, milkmen and the recently ejected detritus of the city’s nightclubs returning to the warmth of their unwashed sheets.

When boisterous, blustering, buffoonish Boris rocked up in carefree Kernow on the big red bus, with a big fat lie on its side, he wasn’t promoting the London Olympics. Armed with a Ginsters pasty, a pint of Tribute and a liberal sprinkling of fairy dust, he peddled the, barely believable, fantasy of unlimited export opportunities for Cornish Yarg, Rhodda’s Clotted Cream and the delights of a Stargazey Pie unfettered by the common fisheries policy.

No longer blinded by the blarney, we realise that despite what Govey’s wife told him, the fishing industry makes up a mere 0.5% of GDP, with agriculture an equally paltry 0.52%. In contrast, the drinks industry – where I work – while never going to threaten the service industry at 70% – still accounts for some £46 billion, but rather than being ring-fenced and protected, is routinely milked as an economic cash cow that’s becoming rather emaciated and increasingly unsteady on it’s hooves.

A catastrophic cocktail of low investment, decreased margins, spiralling costs, a weak pound, and a necessity to stockpile to absorb a possible ‘no deal’ are making the pips squeak. Pubs, bars, hotels and restaurants are closing at an alarming rate and an inability to pass on, ever rising, costs to a consumer that still thinks that a fiver for a bottle of wine is a bit too steep and you begin to understand that Brexit is a three-year headache that’s about to turn into a four year migraine! Oh, and Ginsters will not be relocating to Singapore anytime soon.

As the Maybot snuggles up to Jezza, while Nigel Farage hides in the wardrobe, I hope they have been pondering the real human cost of this unmitigated disaster while restlessly awaiting the dawns early light.

However, it is not the parlous state of the nation that disturbs my reverie this morning, but a sharp and severe pain in the chest – rather than the arse. As it increases, I begin to feel a little worried, and decide to walk around in the hope of dislodging any stubborn remnants of last nights carbonara. My chilly dawn wanderings disturb the VOR who after googling my symptoms insists that I put on some clothes and go straight to the hospital, without passing Go or trousering £200.

‘The bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio’… Paul Simon

I wash up in A&E with the flotsam and jetsam of the night before and descend into one of Dante’s circles of hell. An assortment of the drunk and disaffected, in various stages of inebriation and consciousness, litter the furniture – that one of their more voluble number is threatening to smash up if it wasn’t bolted to the floor.

Recognising my name, I step into an anteroom which smells of sweat and stale urine to recount my sorry tale, before being sent back out into the gladiatorial arena armed only with an information leaflet.  

An ECG later finds me in a corridor – where patients are lying on beds awaiting other beds – in a sorely underfunded and overstretched system. A tired Thai nurse, who may soon be deported, asks for the details of my next of kin, and as the doors of an adjacent service lift part, I catch a glimpse of my grey shaded self in the industrial light of it’s internal mirrors and wonder if this is how it ends? 

I don Peter Seller’s ‘bright nightgown’ – whose open back provides a much needed giggle for the exhausted staff – as the VOR returns and my mood becomes less black, although when I tell her I’m cold it reminds me of the last words of the teenage, mid western, farm boy crying out for his mama in so many war movies. Unable to lie down, I sit forlornly, struggling to preserve my modesty, as I wait for a series of tests and urge the VOR to go home and walk our dog who will be wondering where we are.

The CAT scan is a distinctly odd experience, and as the dye is pumped through my veins there is a warm sensation, together with a strong, rather undignified urge to evacuate the bowels – perhaps that explains the backless gown? The results show that thankfully, rather like Fergal Sharkey, I have a good heart.

Consequently, I have embarked upon a winnowing and decided to close my business and slow down – although the VOR informs me that I cannot keep saying that I’ve cheated death to everyone who calls to ask after my well being. Little does she know that as a result of  disengaging from the tyranny of social media, my phone usage is down by 43%, so it seems that, like Cher, I can turn back time!

It’s a beautiful spring day as I pass an old wino singing into a microphone on a bridge across the harbour. Struggling to make out the notes – which impinge ever so fleetingly upon the melody – I conclude that it’s Neil Diamond’sForever in Blue Jeans’. Pausing for thought, I realise that I have been given a gift, well not exactly a gift, but a warning and it’s the warning that is the gift. 

Here’s to a good nights sleep!

‘Money talks, but it don’t sing and dance and it don’t walk. As long as I can have you here with me, I’d much rather be. Forever in blue jeans babe’

‘Love, Death and the Sea’

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“What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning….”

 Dor

The historian, Richard Cobb, said that a place can only be truly known if explored on foot, and with that firmly in mind, I am wandering, not entirely without purpose, through the empty, partially lit, secretive streets of a small seaside town, in search of an elusive zinc bar or eponymous four table restaurant.

Everything is closed, and with the possibility of eating, and drinking, dissolving at every turn, I have the not entirely sensible idea of paddling in Homer’s wine dark sea, to stand barefoot and carefree in its shallow waters.

I walk on, to where I instinctively imagine the seashore to be, past small, dark, rudimentary dwellings – clumsily adorned like roughly hewn cuckoo clocks – their woodlandish facades edited by Green Men, hacked from the healing wilderness – remnants of once great forests that lament the passing of the wolf and the bear – an idyll in every dark knot and recess; The Pied Piper, Strewelpeter, Kaspar Hauser, the cannibalistic Baba Yaga and the cadaverous beak of Helpmann’s Childcatcher ……’Lollipops’!

There’s a promenade of sorts, albeit unfinished – culminating in a rough and slightly dangerous arrangement of sticks and stones – and with only the lights of the boats to guide me, I stumble over the greasy- green pebbles toward the death of a good idea.

My destination smells of petroleum and cradles the usual predictable refuse. In the twilight, not yet pierced by the hard light of industry, I lose a shoe in the muddy silt and after standing in the slimy opaque water for what seems like an appropriate time – determined to add a touch of romance to the occasion – I turn disconsolately away from the cranes, rubble, and the smell of oil and tar, to make my way back through the unlit streets, where the shutters remain firmly closed and no friendly innkeeper beckons a one shoed man for a nightcap.

Saudade

The small cove is deserted – save for a young man closing a beach front bar and putting the sun beds to bed – as eleven middle aged men, in various stages of decrepitude, arrive to replace the glossy, sun bronzed youth of the day. One of their number asks for a photograph, for posterity, as they stand in line and the shorebreak kisses the slab of beer at their feet. Turning away, they silently paddle out into the cold violet evening waters of the bay, settling to form a circle, beyond the swell, catching the beer cans thrown their way. Some words are said, to a friend who no longer hears them, ashes are scattered and gritty hands submitted to the washing of the water. Later that evening the young man encounters the middle aged men, in the street of the one horse town, places his hand on his heart, and says, that what he has witnessed will stay with him forever.

Now his eyes are bright farthings

And he spindles

In seas deeper than death

His lips are no longer wet with wine

But gleam with green salt

And the Gulf Stream is his breath

 

Now he is fumbled by ancient tides

Among decks flagged with seaweed

But no flag sees he there

His fingers are washed to stone

And to phosphor

And there are starfish in his hair

 

Hiraith

Behind us lay the hills where I played as a child, among the swine houses, Sweyne’s Houses, The Great Sea Lord, walking on the old English hows.  We wait for the ebb tide, near the haunted rectory, gazing westward to the medieval monastic sites of the holms and the lilac blue carpeting of sea lavender, glass wort, yellow flag, bog cotton and brandy bottle.

Donning our wetsuits, a ritual enacted since childhood – both his and mine – the pointing of the foot through the rubber, the pulling of the fabric over each shoulder, the swoosh of the zipper and the familiar nod as we tuck our boards under our arms and make ready to leave the land.

I stand next to him on the cold grey rock, waiting for the swell to fill the pool, content to be in his company, father and son linked by blood and shared history, no blame, no shame, just the us-ness of us.

I sense my hand reaching out, to muss his hair as I did when he was a child, but hesitate, anxious not to break our silent bond

 Cynefin

I cast a glance when he is not looking. My eldest, tall, lithe, graceful, but not yet as strong as he should be, silhouetted against the bright, tight drama of the bay. He catches me and smiles, I look shyly down, at the rivulets of sea foam meandering through my ugly disfigured toes, reflecting on his years of illness and endless hospital stays, the toll it has taken on us both and the realisation that whatever one tries to recapture has always already gone.

 ‘Like to the lark at break of day arising,

from sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

that then I scorn to change my state with kings’.

 

 

 

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‘I tread the sand at the sea’s edge’

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My father walks toward me up the beach his spare frame silhouetted against the sparkling sun. ‘Breathe deeply boy’ he says as he ruffles my hair. I look into his eyes the colour of the sea and realising  a cat has my tongue bury my head in the warmth of my faithful dog’s neck seeking comfort and reassurance in her familiar smell. I am asthmatic and the sea makes me well. It is why we came here.

A daydream takes me to our house in the hills and the grave of the unknown, unnamed, tortoise. He ran away, finding temporary refuge amid the wreckage of my grandmother’s desk – a Christmas present compromised by my father’s ill-timed gift of a tool set – perhaps he had an inkling of what was to come. The doctor says that if we get rid of the animals it will help my breathing. Snowy the rabbit is adopted and subsequently eaten by the neighbours. We are unable to part with the dog.

 ‘The darkness is not dark. Nor sunlight the light of the sun’

Eight summers pass when Alan speaks to me walking by on a startling, sea shimmering, summer morn with salt in his hair and a smile on his face. ‘Why don’t you follow me out’ he says. Squinting upward, I place my trust in him tuck my beloved and battered surfboard beneath my skinny arm and allow him to shepherd me through the rip next to the pier. Forty years later I place my hand gently onto his casket and say goodbye.

 ‘And they were behind us, reflected in the pool. Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty’

 Major Matt Mason sinks slowly beneath the glossy mirror of the mossy moat. Calisto, despite the enormous brain straining against the confines of his transparent green skull, is unable to save his friend. I grasp the Major’s clumsily articulated armature as my father grasps mine as I dive downward. I gaze into those grey eyes once more and recall our journey home from school, the day my brother died, remembering that he buried him alone in the winter rain.

Adrian and I fail to hear Akela’s footsteps on the creaking boards of the scout hall, blissfully unaware of our impending dishonourable discharge. Adrian is my best friend. His father Jack a fine cricketer. But to Ade and I he is better known as a singer, immortalised by his unforgettable, some might say unforgivable, rendition of Al Martino’s ‘Spanish Eyes’. Jack has a lingual protrusion lisp and the line ‘Please say Si Si’ reduces us to helpless laughter. Akela’s glare is far from benign as she spots the crescent shaped bite mark on my thigh and the cartoonesque, egg-shaped lump protruding from Adrian’s forehead. The old wolf uses her wisdom to expel us from the pack, confiscating our woggles and consigning us to the wilderness, like Jason McCord in Branded, to forever fight for our good names.

 Dad’s a rugby man, regularly and eagerly watching as I shiver on the touchline, my skinny, hairless and mottled knees knocking in the bitter northeasterly wind.  I place my frozen hands inside my thin cotton shirt to warm them against my unfilled out torso and wait for the pass that never comes. Checking my opposite number, I accurately guess that he’s been picked for size rather than speed. His fledgling moustache and probable pubic hair suggest that we cannot possibly be in the same academic year. If we are my folks just don’t have a big enough larder.

The ball comes above my head, exposing my bare sinewy midriff. I gather the greasy ball, with stiff little fingers, just as the overfed progeny of Brobdingnag  cuts me in two with a scything tackle that sees me crumble like a Corinthian column in an earthquake. Bundled into touch – where another large and ungainly lad falls on me – I overhear a cry of ‘Who’s that kid on the wing’ and imagine the expression on my father’s face.

 ‘I tread the sand at the sea’s edge’

 ‘What do you think he does all day’ my mother asks?

Becoming an ordinary surfer is a difficult task, but becoming a good one, one that people look up to, well that’s another story….This is how I spend my time.

 The lefthander is technically difficult, requiring one hard turn, mid face, followed by a series of rapid pumps to trim, drive, and out run the crashing lip. I am flying down the line, pushing hard on the first third of my board to flatten the rocker, simultaneously keeping my toe rail down to maintain glide along the fast moving wall. I alternate with pressure on my heels to stop the inside rail from being sucked up and pitched by the lip. Subtle changes are transmitted from my feet to my brain as the water draws off the bottom and the wave disembowels itself on the rocky slab. I take another, staying close to the hook so I can feel the foam-ball spit and spray my back like a fire hose, testing the limits of the board, the bite of the inside rail, the whip of the tail, the alignment and cant of the fins. Oh how they sing at speed.

Over dinner, silently pondering minor adjustments and the shape of my next board. I conclude that talking would make me sound like Orwell’s ‘rattling stick in a swillbucket’ and besides, I don’t like the sound of my breaking voice. My father glares at me, but I am fourteen and have long stopped listening to my father.

I feel my mother’s eyes on me, as I prepare for my first big trip, and wonder what she makes of her one remaining son. A poorly designed wetsuit seam has reduced my belly button by half over the summer, and my left foot, strapped with duct tape, has a wound that fails to heal as I refuse to stay out of the water. Add to this knees full of skating grazes, permanently bloodshot eyes, a condition called surfers ear and a mop of unruly, unwashed, salt encrusted hair. Despite, or perhaps because of this, she kisses me on the forehead and with a tear in her eye holds me just a little too long.

The first trophy is hard earned in double overhead surf. ‘The kids ok in the small stuff, but lets see how he does when it gets bigger’. Hiding it behind my back I try to look disconsolate in front of my girl – who has a Saturday job in the pet shop – but she can tell I’ve won and laughing loudly tosses her dark hair that smells of birdseed and pony nuts.

Pushing through the crowd at the water’s edge, away from the American and Australian surfers who’ve consigned me to an ignominious first round exit from the contest, I avoid Sylvie’s sympathetic smile realising that no matter how good I think I am, I’m not in their league. Sylvie returns to Biarritz knowing that I do not love her enough to follow. I return home to race rats and do not surf again for seventeen years.

 ‘Time past and time future. What might have been and what has been.’

In the waveless world of the city, where my wife grew up and my boys were raised, it’s difficult to imagine the sea, and  when I dream of home it is not as it is now. Unnatural and false full regularly appearing in colour supplements, its caramelised onions and cappuccinos fortifying overindulged, overfed, middle aged alphas, unforgivingly shoehorned into shorties by their mean lipped, male hipped wives, before their next bespoke tutored surf session. Once the epitome of cool, my sport is neatly packaged as a lifestyle choice and used to peddle  4×4’s, seaside property and life insurance for the newly retired. I don’t begrudge them their fun, but they belong on paved sand-less streets not on the last of the country’s uncommitted land, their baby soft feet weeping for the safety of shoes.

‘The free person who runs away is no better off than a fish with a hook in his mouth, given plenty of line so he can tire himself out and be reeled in calmly and easily by his own destiny’ 

Leaving the warm car in the leaf strewn lane I strike out alone down the sheep strewn banks where livestock once walked to market. Past the simple castles – mounty banks – their battlements crushed by the Normans and where Edward I danced a jig on the bones of Llewellyn the Great. Past the ancient caves, facing south into the meagre warmth of the ice age sun, where Eynon once walked with the sea in his blood and the rain on his face, his feet bare and damp, like mine, on the dew of the new morning’s marram grass. Through a cleft in the valley I glimpse the silver grey faces of the new swells, polished by the oarweeds and marching to the mournful sound of the sea bell, the legends of the drowned churches, and the incandescence of the dead.

‘Sweet fields beyond the the swelling flood, Stand dressed in living green’

Entering the chill water, its surface the colour of armour, I push out relieved to escape the land and the incessant nanny ping of the cell phone. Quiet now save for the saw of the wind and the siren call of the sea. ‘Breathe deeply boy ‘ it says.

‘The end precedes the beginning, and the end and the beginning were always there, before the beginning and after the end.’

 

 

 

 

‘England’s Dreaming’

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The view through the, rain spattered, window of ‘Dunmoanin’  seems bleak and uninspiring as the hopes and dreams of my embittered and embattled nation are systematically dashed to pieces on the rocks below.  The VOR and I are holed up in this isolated cottage while the teens recover from exam fatigue and I wrestle with an article on what Brexit may mean for the wine industry.

 Dunmoanin’ appears to be an extremely popular bolthole. A glance at the visitors book reveals such illustrious names as Osborne, Assange, John Darwin, Gordon Brown and Lucky Lucan and the VOR informs me that we must leave, in a timely manner, as another new guest is expected soon.

Gazing absentmindedly, and disconsolately, at the leaden sea-sky twin set – I believe grey’s in this season – a damp, drizzly sense of foreboding descends on tennis professionals, cricketers and political aspirants alike.

Cursing the gods of wifi whilst trying, and failing, to download the Dambusters, I begin with the economy which has plunged to a level not seen for thirty years when eerily apocryphal songs like Patti Labelle’s ‘On My Own’ and Howard Jones’s ‘No One Is To Blame’ graced the pop charts. Unfortunately it appears that we are on our own and someone’s definitely to blame.

The big winners in a weak pound war, are as ever, the major players. If you’re wealthy chances are it won’t affect you and all you have to do is sit tight, ride it out, check the markets and enjoy the show. To use that hackneyed and irritating old phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

For non EU producers it will be easier, and cheaper, to import without the hindrance of a potentially ever rising scale of EU duty. The strong USD and AUD means that our American, Antipodean and South African friends will be sharing the big brand love like there’s no tomorrow. So it will be business as usual on the shelves of your local supermarket, although finding a bottle of Yellowtail, Blossom Hill or The Devil’s Codpiece ,for less than a fiver, may be a thing of the glorious and rose tinted past.

Ironically, its the little people who will suffer. Not the leprechauns – although they may have their own problems – but the kind of small businesses the Brexiteers assured us would be having the time of their lives. It’s great to support British business if you know where its raw materials are coming from. The simple fact is that the small do not have the financial reserves to ride out the coming s**tstorm.

If you have a business whose products primarily come from the EU, then your suppliers may choose to sell entirely within the EU. And even if they do sell to you – chances are they currently don’t like you all that much – then you will be clobbered with ever increasing supply chain costs. This, in turn, limits the choices of Mr and Mrs John Bull.

Of course ,if you are a conspiracy theorist, this could all be a fiendish plot to sell more English wine. But remember, Boris and Michael were drinking beer, not flutes full of namby pamby Nyetimber.

So what if we turn our backs on the sunny sybaritic fruit of the vine and opt for an alternative. We Brits came late to wine remember, historically preferring the taste of beer, like the majority of our northern European neighbours, and spirits such as gin (extremely popular) and schnapps (not so). These are manly drinks and we deny our northernness, in this grey and unpleasant land, at our peril!

‘I’m ready’ the VOR says. ‘Have you sorted everything?’

‘Yes’ I say. ‘I’ve replenished what we’ve used and taken the liberty of stocking the larder with some good old fashioned British produce like Spam, Cadburys Smash, Fry’s Chocolate Cream, Jammy Dodgers, Bully Beef and a few cans of Old Molethrottler. I’ve also scattered some rubbish over the lawn and lit some candles as a reminder of the seventies and I finally managed to download a few ‘Carry On’ films and some episodes of ‘Yes Minister.’

‘You’d better hurry’ she shouts as a large red bus draws up outside.  And stop saying ‘Take Back Control’ in that Dalek voice.

‘Pseudomenos Logos’

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‘You’re a wine merchant who writes about wine merchants.’ A friend recently said. ‘Isn’t that a Cretan paradox.’ I wasn’t thinking of Epimenides, when in ‘A Cautionary Tale’, I urged you to think carefully before buying from an independent. But how you buy your wine, and who you buy it from, is quite an important decision.

Once upon a time things were easy. A kindly uncle or godfather introduced you to a be-pinstriped chap, with gobbets of food on his tie and wine stains over his corpulent shirt front, who laid you down some sherry, madeira, a pipe of port, some judiciously blended Algerian burgundy – with the reassuring smell of an old stable – and a few cases of reliable claret guaranteed to come to maturity before death or gout set in.

Supermarkets were a thing of the future. I vividly remember standing in my local ‘Fine Fare’ while my errant dog wandered in to urinate on the leg of a stranger transfixed by the bottles of Mouton Cadet, Hirondelle, Corrida, Mateus Rose, magnums of Lutomer Laski Riesling and screw top Bardolino, vying for shelf space with Camp Coffee, Heinz Salad Cream, Wagon Wheels, Cadbury’s Smash and Ye Olde Oak Ham.

The white heat of the retailing apocalypse was coming and only the arrogant and lazy didn’t go to the mountaintop to greet the new dawn. The be-pinstriped purveyors of ‘Hock’ and ‘Good Ordinary Claret’ stood firm.  There was nothing to fear but fear itself. Things would go on as they had always done. All wrongs would be righted and the enemy cast down!

Some, alerted by a whippersnapper from marketing no doubt, dodged the approaching meteorite and, whilst not going as far as growing beards or donning tee shirts, escaped the iridium layer and diversified into responsibly sourced, excellent value, own label ranges that were region specific and producer friendly. Berry Bros, Tanners and The Wine Society led the renaissance, showing what you can do by applying sound buying principles and sticking to the maxim of value over price.

Others perished, and on the tombs of the fallen, new palaces were built. Today, eighty percent of the wine sold in the UK is controlled by the multiples. With brands like Blossom Hill’s White Zinfandel – a hideous confection of bubble gum and Calpol – replacing the once mighty Piat D’Or.

These ‘Stepford Wines’, as the big brands are sometimes called, are owned by industry giants Pernod Ricard, Accolade, Gallo, and Constellation and come freshly filled and bottled at a dockyard near you.

They are generally recognisable by names that have a geographical clue in the title such as: Bay, Cove, Hill, Home or Casa, Crest, Valley, Ridge, Peak, Grove, River and Creek. And although these may not be indicative of their real origin – most are cross, or inter-regional, blends made from the big five grape varieties – they do exactly what they say on the crowd pleasing tin.

Now, most folk  – through a combination of idleness and complacency – don’t bother to compare or contrast these wines. So they sail on, through the seven seas of of mediocrity, piloted by the dead hand of globalism, as Flying Dutchwines.

Whoops no free tickets to major sporting events for me!

Needless to say, they all go with red meat, chicken or fish and are great as an aperitif. And just in case you think I’m not up to speed with my food and wine matching, I recommend lager with curry.

It’s hard to make any real money from a high margin, highly taxed, product like wine. But the best way, other than Papa Brand, is private or own label.  Private label, own label, own brand or home brand, is a product owned by a retailer or distributor and sold exclusively in its own stores. They tend to replicate higher level design or branded products but at a lower cost.

Now before the VOR says ‘Don’t be so negative Jules.’ I am going to tell you why this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

If you are a wine producer it doesn’t give you brand equity. In today’s global marketplace the key challenge is access to market and those unable to sell through multiple channels end up in a very poor bargaining position and are often forced to sell without getting any equity at all. This places the relatively unknown producer at the bottom of the food chain. Thus forcing the small, financially weak, and often interesting, from the table to fight for scraps on the floor! Their only hope being the combined efforts of an independent merchant and an adventurous consumer.

This in turn is bad for you dear wine drinker, thats you folks. Not only do you end up paying too much for your prettily packaged plonk but you remain blissfully ignorant of ‘real wine’. This is fine if you just don’t care – but what if you do?

Can own label ever be any good? Yes, if it gives credit to the producer. Marks and Spencer do this extremely well (That should please my mother). Their well positioned, gourmet food is ably supported by an exciting and diverse wine range that puts the producer firmly on the label – and they do nice socks!

The VOR thinks the John Lewis Partnership should make it into the frame, as she believes they should be running the country, although she didn’t say whether that would be with, or without, the vinous expertise of Phillip Schofield.

So what about supermarket own label? The kind pioneered by Tesco Finest, Asda’s Extra Special or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference. If you ignore the tied in brand contracts and controversial was/now pricing these are, on the whole, very reliable wines – even if they don’t always taste of where they come from! The implication here is that the supermarket buyers have sourced the wines themselves, and have carved out margin by bottling it under own label to cut out the middleman thus saving you money as well as being more diverse than the big brands. 

Thats the above deck stuff. But what goes on in the murkier depths of the rather inappropriately named ‘soft’ brand?

The lower decks are the domain of king margin and some powerful promotional tools. ‘From the vineyard to your front door’ says the tagline. Damn I wish I’d thought of that! If mail order is your preferred route you may already be wearing a promotional apron and opening one of your ‘Twelve Stunning Sauvignons’ with a giant corkscrew.

There are two main models here. The first is the Laithwaite’s method – and it works like this. First you dress a wine in some emperor’s new clothes, preferably something akin to the livery of an existing producer. Then a name is invented and hey presto, you are left with a wine that looks like a producers own brand but is in fact an exclusive retail private label which artfully obscures high margin. How else do you think you got those free crystal glasses and a gazillion pounds off your first order. And should you neglect to reorder through sheer laziness, theres a whole telesales department just waiting with a new offer tailored just for you.

Don’t drop that Sauvignon before we move on to the second method. employed by those angelically crowdfunded philanthropists at Naked Wines. This is where you use an existing wine maker to source and buy the wine for you. Then you label it, making sure you put the winemakers name prominently on that label, to make it look like the winemakers own wine. If you think those wings fit, Clarence, you’re peeing up the wrong tree.

Back to the Cretan paradox. Am I, as a wine merchant, saying that all wine merchants are liars? Or, out of slavish self interest, am I attempting to force you into the ever weakening embrace of your nearest independent merchant? Before you push those bottles of Chateau du Manderlay to the back of the cupboard and set of in search of some real wine, just remember that there’s still hope. If its Foine Woine you’re after, then Costco are the largest retailers in the world. For everything else there’s Amazon.

‘The Last Unicorn’

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‘It is a little, shy wine, like a gazelle.’

‘Like a leprechaun’ Dappled in a tapestry meadow.’

‘Like a flute by still water’…… ‘Like a swan’

Like the last unicorn.’

Sniffing, slurping and gargling through Lord Marchmain’s cellar, I ignore the whimsy, youthful imagination, considerable exuberance and callow adolescent cooing of Messrs Ryder and Flyte and concentrate on the wines that Wilcox brings up.

‘Claret says you?’  ‘Aye says I.’ From the sublime to the ridiculous, the good to the ordinary, the bad to the downright ugly. I attempt to separate my Latour from my Latrine.

The smell, and subsequent taste, of the latter taints the painted parlour, p****s on my proverbial chips, and, like the Person from Porlock, sends me hurtling back to reality and the Guildhall to which I was summoned. Not by bells (Quasimodo rather than Betjeman) but by an incessant inbox ping extolling the virtues of, yet another, amazing vintage of affordable Bordeaux.

‘Bask in the regions reflected glory for less than a tenner with our minuscule allocation of  Chateau du Manderlay’. Yet another ‘Chateau you’ve never heard of ‘ making one wonder about the availability of affordable housing outside the city walls.

This is not the good stuff, but lesser fare, laissez faire, wines tugging their forelocks to their elders and betters, drawn along inexorably on the coat tails of the great and good. Coercion based on commercial self interest. The capturing of hearts and minds. The reworking of wine on the cheap.

I’m sure you know the adjectives by now; mature, classic, approachable (no tangible descriptors) touched with cedar. Smell the pencil case , the tweed, the glove.

All about me wines are whipped into whirlpools in the search for, mostly absent, characteristics. When perceived – I will not say found – a low growl of appreciation reverberates around the hallowed hall and the wondrous elixirs are thrown back like Prester John supping from the Grail.

‘Has this increased in price’?

‘No sir. But I expect it to appreciate considerably, by the day’s end, as there are only 8,000 cases left’.

‘Ah yes, I can feel it opening up’

The myth is spun, the straw become gold, the commodity brokered. I could excuse this if the wines were divine, but they are not. It saddens me deeply that the British seigneurial palate fails to turn toward more humble appellations for its satisfaction.

Searching for inspiration, and adjectives, I raise my eyes to the lavishly timbered, swashbucklingly stupendous ceiling, careful not to swallow the wine in my mouth.

Notably nasty, dustily dry, with searingly marked acidity and the aroma of a storm drain.

‘Try this one sir, a wonderful vintage, saved ( yet again) by a glorious end to the growing season’.

This is not tasting what’s in the glass but the false promise of a label and the perpetuation of myth over reality, evoking hazy, youthful, memories of leisurely lunches in ‘Old Scrotums Wine Bar’ while the proprietor busily scrapes the mould off the cheese before wheeling it out with some tired, old, tawny to an increasingly pissed clientele.

I dislike under-ripe Cabernet. The leanness, greenness and meanness of the fruit, the dusty, musty, crusty, unresolved tannins – reminiscent of running one’s tongue along the floor of a long abandoned outbuilding – the flat footed, foursquare, stringy structure and the disagreement it wages against the majority of foods.

The first mistakes take place, as always, in the vineyard. Vine health is key, as is poor vine material – yes you can taste this – site and soil selection, pests, diseases, viruses and, most importantly, vine stress and dilution from overcropping in the interests of profit.

Picking or harvesting is of prime importance. The trend is to harvest over-ripe to avoid those pesky pyrazines – that give those green peppery vegetal notes – basing logistics over tannin ripeness then using cultured yeasts and a lash of new (ish) oak to add a bit of polish.

The wine is then comprehensively unmade in the winery and, while I ere on the side of ordure over order, I prefer it if the winemaker doesn’t  leave the vinification to an assortment of cats, rats, bats and birds.

I can forgive Flyte and Ryder their youthful enthusiasm, but more is required for John Bull than the advice of some ruddy cheeked, red trousered, obsequious and unscrupulous merchant, in novelty cufflinks, reeking of eau de bonhomie. Whose judicious dash of dishonesty may return to haunt him in the deep, dark, bargain basement of the small hours, weighed down by the mayoral chains and tastevins he forged in life.

Nostalgia and desire by association are dangerous things. The Christian Eucharist. The ancient mystery cults. The supplicants desire to view the shrivelled member of the martyr.

‘Liquor sweet and most divine which my God feels as blood but I as wine’.

George Herbert’s words stir us to meditation, then exhilaration, prior to the inevitable burp of satisfaction – a source of pleasure, but not an object of pleasure.

Like Bono – I will allow this one association only – I still hadn’t found what I was looking for and what I was looking for was fruit!

For today, at least, the last unicorn is safe in its woodland idyll.

‘That will be all Wilcox.’

‘A Cautionary Tale’

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“If you were born to walk the ground,

 Remain there; do not fool around”     Belloc

For those of you who have just emerged from the self-imposed misery of a ‘Dry January’, it’s time to charge your glasses and raise a toast to the demise of the calendar’s dreariest month.

But before you rush to set those cash registers ringing, with your newly refurbished bank balances and bonuses. Let me offer up some words of warning for those of you considering buying from an independent wine merchant.

The wines they sell can be exciting:

A tad risky, I grant you. Independents tend to shy away from bland, boring, insipid wines. If you prefer neutral, alcoholic, fruit-juicy pap then stop reading now!

Their wines don’t all taste the same:

That’s right, they are often deliberately different. There will also be vintage variation (it’s hard to make a wine taste the same year in year out). This is due to weather – don’t worry I won’t bore you with detail – but expect the tannin, acid and alcohol ratios to change as the seasons do. They may be drier than the wines you are used to and may not have any residual sugar left in to make them ‘smooth’.

If this strikes fear into your heart, then insist that your wines be manufactured to a formula in vast industrial factories, on drip irrigated parched plains, to ensure homogeneity. If they refuse, you know where to go – and there’s a car park!

And what about those labels! You have point here. It’s confusing to call a wine after a region, property, vineyard, plot or person. Better to give it a legend like; The Bend in the Elbow, The Devil’s Punchbowl, Cougar’s Claw, or Dunny Ridge. And as for those pesky grape varieties! My advice is to stick to one of the tried and tested ‘big five’ or alternatively look for a brand with a small marsupial, lizard or fish on it.

They sometimes offer advice:

This is a bit unnerving, and particularly unwelcome if you if you don’t care that much about wine. Independents are cheeky buggers who may seek to steer you into unknown territory – where few civilised folk have drank before. If in doubt, try and get something akin to a cheap, ‘own label’ Merlot as it goes great with red meat. Besides who needs knowledgeable staff when it’s easier to intimidate untrained ones. And if they do offer you something to taste just pretend you have a cold and leave quickly.

They don’t do promos or bogofs’:

There are many reasons for this. They may not have enough c**p stockpiled to offer a promotion. The cost of the wines may also be transparent – reducing the need for them to go up and down like a politicians trousers. Of course if you really believe that you are getting ten pounds worth of quality for a fiver, best to stick with a supermarket. They will have a huge marketing machine that has psychologically profiled you to make you think you are actually in charge of the decision making process.

They’re a bit snobby:

Yes, kind of, but this is a common phenomenon found everywhere; from car showrooms, bike, skate and surf outlets, fashion retailers, art galleries, music and bookshops to purveyors of high end training shoes. It’s because some level of expertise is essential. If you find this hard to swallow look out for minimalist shelf talkers that say ‘Good with Fish’.

They’re a bit Green:

I know, I know – who bloody voted for them?  If you prefer your wines to have a gigantic carbon footprint or be shipped around the globe by the container load (in 24,000 litre polypropylene bladders) and bottled at the local dockyard you know you’re in the wrong place. Big bags equal big business. Some independents even buy their wines from Europe -usually from small artisan growers who farm organically or biodynamically. Bloody tree huggers!

I’m already a member of a wine club:

Ah yes, let me guess; the £50 voucher, the free corkscrew and set of real crystal glasses, plus something off your next order if you recommend a friend. Did you ever stop to taste those wines, or consider why no one comes to dinner anymore? I know they insist that they champion small producers and vineyards but did you ever stop to wonder why there’s such an inexhaustible supply.

My local wine merchant has closed down:

So sad. They have gone the way of grocers, bakers, chemists, newsagents, fishmongers, butchers and petrol stations. If your high street is filled with charity shops, coffee shops, chain stores and tumbleweeds, don’t moan – it may be partly your fault, but you can still get all those things from your local supermarket.

If you live in the back of beyond, you will be forced to go online. Be mindful though as some wine websites are owned by the kind of innovative small businesses you’re so keen to avoid.  Go for the big ones as they have money off as well as twenty three different kinds of Pinot Grigio.

I really couldn’t give a **** about wine:

Wine’s a pain actually. It’s more complex than lager and it doesn’t get you p****d as fast as vodka – unless it’s got bubbles.  Besides you’ve tried loads of wines and whilst some are nicer than others you don’t really care that much as long as it’s cheap and there’s lots of it. I fully sympathise with your plight and suggest you make sure you chill it right down to hide any faults – or more importantly taste!