Thursday, 4 February 2016

Aldi Encounter: Koliburra Shiraz

So the good news is that Aldi have decided to offer an online wine delivery service. More than good news: up there with the Beatles releasing Hey Jude, it's that big. The thing about Aldi, and its coeval, Lidl, is that it's an adorable modern paradox - an aspirational discount supermarket, a place selling okay stuff at an affordable price, and so candid in its actions that middle-class bubbleheads like me are desperate to have one in the neighbourhood, partly to show the world our demotic love of a bargain, partly to drive down the prices in the adjoining Waitrose, partly to get away from the sheer chore of driving to Hounslow. And have you even tried to park in the Hounslow Aldi? It's always full, cars trailing out into the street like the rearguard of a defeated army. I mean it's hopeless.

However: here we are with a twinkly new wine website, in fact suspiciously sleek-looking, not the atmosphere of rent cardboard boxes and naked wooden pallets that I really want from Aldi as tokens of its good faith, but in we go, past something called the Exquisite Collection (a bunch of New Zealand Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Valpolicellas, all predictably sporting shingles from the IWSC) costing around £35 a half-dozen, a bit steep for my purposes, and onwards to a Kooliburra Australian Shiraz, much more like it at effectively £4 a bottle, plus some very fair customer reviews ('Cracking', 'Excellent', 'Reliable', 'A little rough round the edges, usually as an after effect') but what the hell is this? A 2013 Châteauneuf-du-Pape at £17 a bottle? Is this some kind of joke? Aldi?

Horrified, I run to the mixed cases, where I know there will be all kinds of muck going begging and, thank God, something calling itself Easy Drinking Reds jumps out, a bran-tub of Chilean Merlot, knock-off Chianti, tanker Pinot Noir, all sorts, £4 a bottle. Clearly, I am not going to get down to the magic £2.99 a throw, which would have been perfect (although now I think of it, the £2.99 Aldi Baron St Jean Vin De Pays I drank years ago was authentically disgusting), but we are where we are and I am determined to give the website a try.

The only thing which really causes me to hesitate is the fact that nearly every time I order wine to be delivered to my perfectly accesible house, something happens, an over-delivery, a non-delivery, an unwanted repeat delivery, it can't be predicted, but it will happen and it will make me vow never to buy mailorder again, at least until the next moment of slack-jawed inattention, seasoned with a kind of glib parsimony, steals over me and I make the same mistake, the same wilful confusion of the opportunistic and the short-sighted -

No: Aldi are going to be different, as well as cheap.

Ten minutes later: there it is, fixed up, a mixed half-case of Crisp and Refreshing Whites, price per bottle £5.11, yes, a bit grand, but you don't want to take too many chances with your Muscadet Sur Lie or your New Zealand Pinot Gris ('Just had it with a spicy pizza,' comments Mollymoo of Winchester, my kind of wine connoisseur), plus a six-pack of the Koliburra Shiraz. Total: £54.58, including free delivery, a clear inducement to get me to join the big Aldi community, the community which lives to give, an inducement which I have blithely accepted. Had I paid for delivery, that would have added another £3, at which point I might have started wondering if the convenience of having the stuff mis-delivered to my house wasn't outweighed by the price hit, and shouldn't I trudge down to Hounslow and the chaos of the carpark to see if there wasn't anything more affordable instore? But then that question has answered itself already, in the form of my refusal to get up and look for the car.

Actually, the only other thing which causes me to hesitate is that 2013 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Admittedly Aldi's stuff is going for less than other 2013 Châteauneuf-du-Pape offers I dig up on the internet, but it may just be a worse iteration of that vintage, I have no idea. No, the problem is the concept of Aldi selling anything for £17 - wine, an electric lawnmower, packet ham: no single item at Aldi should cost more than a tenner, or what's the point? It is a matter of trust, and trust, as we know, is the most precious component in any human interaction, especially when it comes to willing things to be better than they actually are. Still. I can't, in an apprehensive sort of way, wait to see how it turns out.


Thursday, 28 January 2016

Should wine be "convenient"?

What is this obsession with “convenience” in wine?

It’s more “convenient” to have a screwcap than a cork. To have wine in a box than in a bottle. To buy your wine at a corner shop or supermarket, alongside your groceries, than to visit a wine merchant.

A wine you can drink now is more “convenient” than one which needs to be cellared. A wine you can pour from the bottle is more “convenient” than one which needs to be decanted.

And wine you can carry with you ready to drink, in a can, a plastic bottle or a sealed plastic goblet, is more “convenient” than wine which requires those obstructively inconvenient items, a glass and a table.

Buying it, opening it, keeping it, carrying it or storing it, convenience seems to be the one thing everybody wants in their wine. Except me.

A little inconvenience can be a wonderful thing. Filling up a fountain pen before you write. Watching Guinness settle in a glass. In this always-on world, there’s something to be said for anticipation, for ritual, for slowness. And to me, inconvenience only enhances the enjoyment of wine.

I want a bottle, an actual bottle, brought back from the wine merchant’s in a twist of tissue paper. Or brought up from the cellar after due deliberation, perhaps with the added allure of a little dust on its shoulders. Not a box, parked in the kitchen, dispensing wine like handwash.

I want the peeling of the capsule, the squeaking as the corkscrew goes in, the deployment of the wrist in using a Waiter’s Friend, and the pop as the cork comes out. Not the crack, twist and toss of the screwcap.

I want my first sight of its colour, and first whiff of its bouquet, from the careful pouring into a decanter or glass. Yes, glass – not a prepoured plastic goblet. I’ll let you know when I want to drink my wine out of the equivalent of a yogurt pot.

Should this idea of “convenience” be interpreted generously, as an attempt to offer the pleasure of fine wine as easily as possible? No, because the wines which are marketed as “convenient” are rarely “fine”. They come from producers who simply believe that the more easily we consume, the faster we will buy more.

And hence the extension of effortlessness into even the wine itself. “Easy-drinking” – what a damning description of a wine! “It just slips down…” – without relish, without savour, without thought.

Well, I do not want to live in a world of “convenience”. Of clip-on ties and Velcro-closed shoes. Of elasticated waistbands, and long-life milk.

There are so many areas of life nowadays in which slower, traditional ways have returned and been acknowledged for their qualities over the easy and convenient. Proper coffee over instant. Slow roasts. Open fires. Pleasures where the rituals of preparation, and the growing anticipation, add to the enjoyment of the result. Pleasures worth waiting for.

So let us expunge from the vocabulary of wine such terms as easy, effortless, quick and handy – and, most of all, convenient. I don’t want wine to become an easy, flip commodity. I want it to remain slow and considered, prefaced by its rituals, enhanced by anticipation and enjoyed at leisure.

There are many good things about wine – and more of them come to those prepared to wait.


Thursday, 21 January 2016

High Street Terminal II: Down To Nothing

So here we are in the second half of the first month of 2016, and the last independent wine store in my neighbourhood, the one which was previously a doomed Oddbins, has just closed down. You could see it coming, of course. The poor devils were wasting away before our eyes like a malaria case, with painfully shrinking stock, an increasing feverishness in the disposition of items in a space that was at least twice as big as it needed to be, a long moment of despair during which the deadest part of the retail area was turned into a wine bar which no-one ever went to, then a final convulsion of bottles in the window display, containing beer, mineral water, wines you had never heard of, beseeching chalk notices, messages scrawled from the deathbed. I mean why would anyone ever go into any kind of retailing, especially in our neck of the woods?

Here, the only survivors are either parasites (estate agents, a fresh growth of them in the last twelve months) or necrophages (scores of charity shops, all looking eerily healthy), plus some mainstream supermarkets in different sizes, visitors from a different ecosystem. Nothing much else lives here, except for a hardware store which sold me not one but four sets of Christmas tree lights at the end of last year. But here's the thing: on the face of it my neighbourhood and PK's are remarkably similar, with their mixed suburban housing stock and their relentlessly middle-class homeowners + fatuously large cars + expensive holidays + furious young mothers. However: his supports at least three independent wine stores, on top of a full array of supermarkets and, shortly before this same extended neighbourhood turns into the concrete netherworld at the start of the motorway, a Majestic Wine. And yet it's only a couple of miles from where we live. In fact I could lean out of the window and shout to attract PK's attention if I really wanted to. How can one place be so very good for booze and the other, so close by, not? The demographic appears to be identical, but when it comes to wine, it clearly isn't.

Well, as PK somewhat tartly observes, his place also boasts four bookshops, a theatre and a literary festival, to say nothing of several chain restaurants, and, come to think of it, a boutique chocolatier so overprivileged that a small boxed assortment costs the same as a weekend in Wales, so I suppose that answers that. His High Street is much bigger and busier and frankly, poncier, than mine, so what else do I expect? Oh, and his property prices are higher than mine. It is in effect a perfect storm of self-regard and consumerism, but is it (using the number of independent wine shops as the key determinant) at least three times more self-regarding and consumerist than the apparent dead zone I have been living in for the last quarter of a century? Yes, so it would seem - and of course when I stand back and look at my surroundings critically it doesn't take long before their dullness and banality, their lack of ambition, start to become overwhelming and I wonder how I ever kidded myself that I was a bit of a groover to be living here at all. The difference between PK's retail environment and mine turns out to be the difference between St-Germain-des-Prés and Coney Island.

Which makes me then wonder - if this is the case - how sincerely self-deluding you would have to be, not to spot these actually quite substantial nuances, to believe that you and you alone could bring the art of fine drinking to a place that clearly has no interest in such a thing. Obviously one feels badly for the people who tried to make the project work and failed, but in essence It's got to be more self-defeating than trying to explain the internet to your mother. And yet PK has access to three of the damn things. No, I'm sorry, I still don't understand.