Thursday, 1 October 2015

Flying Wine, Mostly Tempranillo

So the wife and I have just been on a quick trip to New York and naturally the one question worth answering is what kind of wine does British Airways serve? Since I only ever go steerage, my answer is necessarily reduced in scope, but on this occasion it was a Tempranillo rosé on the way out (perfectly drinkable, could have been a bit colder) and something called Cencibel red on the way back, which turned out to be Tempranillo by another name (perfectly drinkable, can't remember much about it, to be honest). Can we learn anything from this?

Well, the best in-flight wine I have ever had was on Qatar Airways. Nothing to do with the wine itself (it was red), but with the quantity. Instead of arriving in a Lilliputian screw-top bottle, it was poured out by hand from a big, proper, glass container, the wine brimming my plastic beaker, a real meniscus serving. In fact the stewardess said she wouldn't be back to give me a refill for some time, and would I like an extra beaker of wine there and then to keep me going? Obviously, I said Yes, and sat there with my crappy fold-down table luxuriously burdened with drink, feeling like a king.

Of course, it didn't much matter what was in the glass, as - we all know this, don't we? - your tastebuds are shot the moment you get into a plane. In-flight meals are massively sweeter and saltier than their ground-level equivalents, because you can barely taste anything in the dessicated, pressurised, environment of a jet, and the cook must compensate accordingly. At the same time, airlines avoid serving wines which are heavily tannic or acidic, because those flavours do persist: so a fruity Tempranillo is about right, whereas a Claret is not going to work, and champagne generally tastes lousy, even though it accords with that sexy jetset lifestyle we've been aspiring to since 1959.

Would I have had a better drinking experience if I'd been flying pre-Jet Age, pre-pressurisation, pre-War, in fact? Essentially, no. The earliest commercial flights - Croydon to Le Bourget, always a favourite - were appalingly noisy, cold, bumpy, and smelled of petrol. The old Imperial Airways planes could drop a hundred feet in a second when they hit turbulence, so going to the toilet was something you put off until Paris. Wines too would have been shaken to perdition, so the stock in-flight booze was lager beer and whisky. It got a bit better as the planes themselves improved, but there was still no real pleasure to be had, not until the Boeing 707 showed us how it should be done; by which time you could drink and eat what you liked, and it all tasted the same.

No: the way to drink wine is on an airship - and not just any airship, I mean the R101 and The Hindenburg would be poor choices in any event, no, it has to be the Graf Zeppelin, the behemoth of the skies from 1928 to 1937. This incredible vehicle - it was actually crowd-funded, you know - was seven hundred and seventy-six feet long and held nearly four million cubic feet of hydrogen. In its years of service it made just under six hundred flights, travelled over a million miles, carried more than thirteen thousand passengers, circumnavigated the globe, crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic, went to Brazil, Russia and the Arctic - without a single injury to passenger, crew or freight. A stupendous record: much of it due to Dr Hugo Eckener, legendary captain of the Graf, a man known as The Magellan of the Air, a giant in the history of flight. With Dr Eckener in charge, you might hit the odd spot of turbulence, or get held up by a squall line, or even spill your soup; but you would arrive in one piece.

Better yet, you would, with luck, have experienced a kind of travel which was authentically dream-like in its ease and strangeness. Not, it must be said, in northern latitudes, and not in winter: there was no heating on board, so you had to spend those flights wrapped in a leather overcoat and cashmere scarf, waiting for beef tea, but - anywhere warm, you could float a few hundred feet above the earth, with the windows open, listening to distant cow bells, the hum of traffic, even raised voices, with no sound audible from the remote airship engines; and you could sip, frankly, whatever wine you had brought with you. Hock was popular; even a white Burgundy might have survived. And afterwards, you could go and smoke yourself stupid in a pressurised, asbestos-lined smoking room, where electric cigarette lighters were your flame. Did it matter that you were, basically, attached to a gigantic floating bomb? As Lady Grace Drummond Hay, traveller and Zeppelin enthusiast put it: 'I cannot conceive a greater thrill'.


Thursday, 24 September 2015

Anglo-French name-calling – Les Rosbifs

We English are used to the idea of nicknames related to diet. After all, Americans called us “Limeys” because our sailors ate limes to ward off scurvy. The French called us “Rosbifs” because we roast our beef. It is perhaps only a matter of time until we are known by the world as Twizzlers.

And we, of course, similarly refer to the French as “Frogs”. My understanding is that they do not particularly like this term, although they probably prefer it to “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.

However, there is a French winemaker who labels his wines Arrogant Frog. And there is clearly a belief that the way to make French wine appealing to a broader English market, and compete with the frank, in your face approach of some of the New World brands, is to have a jolly good laugh around clichés about the French, and the old Anglo-French entente cordiale. Or lack thereof.

So we have a whole string of wines which parade faux Frenchness, a case of the oafs meeting the oeufs. They play upon what might pass as French to the residents of Walford. You get wines like Les Dauphins, all tricked out with mock belle epoque designs. There was one at M&S called Chez Pierre which looked like the house wine of a French restaurant on Coronation Street. Clearly taking the St Michael.

Then we have French wines which play upon what is believed to be English tradition. Nonsense like 58 Guineas Claret,  ignoring the fact that the French would never use the word ‘claret’ themselves.

And we have wines which take the mickey out of the French language, like  Longue-dog, Goats Do Roam  and Chat-en-oeuf. Which play upon Languedoc, Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf, respectively if not respectfully.

So perhaps it was only a matter of time before these absurd convolutions resulted in a French wine sold to the English by playing upon the way that the English are described by the French. And here it is, a Pays D’Oc red, Les Rosbifs.

Now personally, I don’t have a problem with us being described as “rosbifs”. It’s a hearty, red-blooded kind of a nickname. Better rosbifs than, say, coqs.

But of course, it doesn’t stop there. The label of Les Rosbifs is illustrated with what are presumably meant to to be English motifs. A knife and fork, for example, but crossed sideways, despite the fact that English children are taught not to do that. Some people say a crossed knife and fork indicates an argument to come, a superstition I seem to be proving correct.

There’s a hat on the label, which looks a bit like Tudor headgear and a bit like a crown. And there's what appears to be a bovine with a football, which might I suppose be a reference to Wayne Rooney.

What really rankles is the fact that this preposterous marketing construct has clearly not been created by the French themselves. On the back label, there is an explanation of the “good-natured” (sic) nickname “rosbifs”. It is said to be “an 18th Century gastronomic term describing our  (my italics) distinctive style of cooking meats.” That’s “our” distinctive style, fellow Englishmen. Not “their” distinctive style – as it should be if written by a French winemaker.

Plus of course, there’s a further real giveaway. Obviously it is inauthentic for a French wine to put a stonking great varietal on its label. But worse than that; if this wine had an iota of French authenticity, they wouldn’t have called it Shiraz. It would be Syrah. Only, that word’s not as well-known in Walford…

In the end, what you’ve got underneath all of the flim-flam is a straightforward seven-quid Syrah. (I refuse to call a French wine Shiraz.) That rubbery smell like an old eraser…that initial clatter around your palate like a mouthful of marbles…that thick, velvety soupiness, settling down after the initial burn-off into a puddle of bitter cherries. Certainly not Bordeaux, the French wine which surely a traditional Englishman would choose.

Who on earth will buy this stuff? Do people really chuckle when they see it on a shelf, or laugh as they place it on their dining table, and point out the label to their guests?
Is it cashing in on some kind of UKIP jingoism?
According to the official website, the classification Pays d’Oc IGP is “a unifying label, signifying quality, authenticity and imagination.” Far be it from me etc, but aren’t all three of those in question here?


Thursday, 17 September 2015

House & Garden & Asda

So PK points this out: WInes of the Week on the House& Garden website, with Joanna Simon pairing a Spanish red with a Languedoc white, both from Asda. PK a) notes the unlikely conjunction of the wincingly chi-chi world of House & Garden with that of Walmart's blue-collar food and drink wranglers; and b) broadly hints that I might want to check out the wines concerned. It's been some time since I last went searching for disappointment in a really big, bleak, supermarket, so of course I get down to the nearest Asda, and it's vast, the size of Belgium, and astonishingly, contains both the wines plugged by Joanna Simon, although the Côtes de Thau is already running low. Back they come, the Spanish Bobal, whatever that is, and the French one, and I compare my own impressions with Ms. Simon's typical wine-writer's assault on language and meaning.

For the red, she has bakewell tart and liquoricey chewiness; okay, I have Hobnobs and floor polish. It's a bit pungent, but otherwise all right. She does state, though, with respect to Bobal, the grape variety, that for some reason they keep the name under wraps. I'm going to guess that's because of the unhappy chime with the name Bohpal - site of the world's worst industrial disaster, where an escape of toxic gas from the Union Carbide plant killed four thousand people and poisoned half a million more. But it's only a guess.

The Côtes de Thau, conversely, has a grapefruit and nettle tang and would go well with a Vietnamese glass noodle salad, which I don't believe is a real dish. Actually, I'm with her on the grapefruit, but with an additional kind of high-pitched whine (no pun), like a mosquito in a bedroom, but this is scarcely Ms. Simon's fault. Taken together, both wines have screwtops, smart labels, are on the cusp of drinkability and are under a fiver, so I'm not complaining. Indeed, I now feel a new, unfamilar, warmth towards Asda, a chartreuse-themed Tesco with fewer fat people and better-organised parking.

But it's the online context which really intrigues. These two workaday wines are sharing H & G's conceptual space with Elton John's Windsor home ('Surrounded by artworks by the likes of Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Louise Bourgeois and Grayson Perry'), Paolo Moschino's Sussex farmhouse ('Transforming the barn into an enchanting guest wing'), a small palace in Marrakesh belonging to someone who claims to be both a design writer and a civil rights consultant ('I have a schedule'), plus twenty-seven things to do with a courgette. This is so exciting. High-end celebrity lifestyle, rubbing shoulders with products from the Walmart family! At last, we can start to bridge the gulf between legitimate aspiration and the dazzling nullities of the glossy magazines! But then - a moment's thought reminds me that it was bound to come sooner or later, the gap between the rich and everyone else nowadays being terminally insupportable, the pressure building from below. A readjustment had to happen, and here it is.

Expect, therefore, to see in the next few months:

Condé Nast Traveller: A fabulous month at Pontins, Camber Sands, containing a full review of the Chuckles Milk Lagoon, a day at the Fun Factory, and four hours in the Jungle Bouncer. Plus: the Pontins all you can eat breakfast buffet - best value south of Filey?

Vanity Fair: In-depth profile of Anthony N. Thompson, CEO of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. Photo-essay by Annie Leibowitz; words by Joan Didion. Also: Mike Myers - the comedians' comedian; and is Supertramp's Breakfast in America the best pop album ever made?

Country Life: The Duke of Roxburghe shares his passion for shoelaces.

Car and Driver: 1,000 miles in Nevada, forty-five minutes in Wichita Falls, half an hour with a damp cloth: pitting the insane Kia Picanto against the awesome Dacia Logan.

World of Interiors: Donatella Versace reveals how she furnished her stunning Manhattan appartment with items from Poundstretcher, Netto and visits to the local tip. And a Kensington-based power couple share their hard-won design secrets (hint - they include expired wallpaper, poster paint, and a lot of love).

Royal Academy Magazine: Parking around Piccadilly just got easier!

There will be others. The great thing is not to let the moment go by. The democratisation of wine has been a long time coming, but at least it's here. Now we can use the wine itself, freighted with its new mobility, as a basis on which to build a progressive social dispensation. That is the true meaning of WIne of the Week, this week.


Thursday, 10 September 2015

Can YOU identify wine brands from their YouGov data?

Could you pick out the drinker of a particular branded wine? Could you tell a Blossom Hill drinker from a fan of Echo Falls? And if you think they’re all the same, can you spot the Lafite enthusiast among them?

Along with its polling and social research, YouGov acquires information from the public about brands. You can put any big brand into its BrandIndex search, and find out about how that brand is perceived – and that includes branded wines.

So YouGov has comments from respondents about the most popular wines, and then statistical correlations between those wines and the hobbies, cars, favourite personalities etc of the people who drink them. Here, for instance, is the page for Wolf Blass and its drinkers. The correlations “show those things which are particularly true of this group.” Some are revealing, some entertaining, and some frankly baffling.

And among all of the mass-market wine brands, YouGov has data on one luxury wine brand – Chateau Lafite. So, with obvious giveaways omitted – I mean, which wine’s drinkers do you think match with BMWs and Beluga caviar? – see if you can identify the following brands:

• Blossom Hill
• Echo Falls
• Campo Viejo
• Oyster Bay
• Lambrini
• Lindemans
• McGuigan
• Chateau Lafite

Wine 1
“I can't drink something that sounds like it was invented by girls in the fifth form at a grammar school in Cheshire” says one respondent. And this wine’s drinkers are indeed predominantly young, female and left-of-centre. They follow such creative pursuits as painting, playing an instrument, drawing and photography. But one of them says it’s a “Reasonable price wine very pleasing to the palette”; be wary of the judgments in both taste and art of those who cannot distinguish palette from palate.  Bizarrely, their favourite movie is likely to be either Babe – or Psycho…

Wine 2
“A cracking bit of white for "hand to hand combat" unoffensive, & reasonably priced.” Well, that must narrow it down to those who favour a fight-inducing wine. But if it’s a Monty Python reference, they’ve got the nationality wrong. This wine has a marginally male, older and slightly right-of-centre fanbase, wearing Blue Harbour clothes and Clark’s shoes. They like quizzes, driving and listening to music. Their most positive trait is that they’re good company; their most negative that they’re abrupt. And their favourite sport is Formula 1. Or, presumably, hand-to-hand combat.

Wine 3
“I think this is sweetened tap water with acids and chemicals to recreate wine flavouring, and half the strength of beer. Is there anything more pointless?” Before you conclude that cannot be the view of a fan, bear in mind this wine actually has a sub-zero rank in popularity. The people who do like it describe it as “refreshing” and “youthful”; those who don’t say it’s “tasteless” and “horrific” – but both sides agree on its primary characteristic: “cheap”. Beyonce and Lily Allen top the listening of its drinkers, and they watch Celebrity Big Brother. People who like it are predominantly young and, yes, female. And their most popular activity? Sleeping.

Wine 4
“The drink I would ask for if I were to be hung.” Let’s assume this respondent means “hanged”, and is not bemoaning something entirely different. Although, as the typical drinker is male, with a hobby of using the internet, perhaps he is. He probably also listens to the Beach Boys, reads Auto Express, and works in engineering or R&D. He seems to favour Tommy Hilfiger almost as much as Dunhill. “I used to really like this,” says one respondent, “until I stopped drinking alcohol.” Well, that would stifle your enjoyment of it, yes.

Wine 5
“A nice quality wine but outside of my budget,” says one respondent. “The quality is consistently good…” A considered judgment of a wine whose fans’ most popular hobby is, actually, drinking. These fans are almost equally split between male and female, but are predominantly right wing. They like Scrabble, they use Lloyds Bank, and they are among the remaining followers of the sport of greyhound racing. And they like Peking duck with pancakes. With this wine?

Wine 6
No shortage of positives here. “All varieties lovely taste as not too strong, and at a decent price. Art work not too bad either!” This wine is described by many as “cheap and cheerful” – but that’s by people who dislike it. Its fans are predominantly females, whose favourite celebrities are, unfortunately, Simon Cowell and Alan Carr. Their supermarket is Aldi; and they’re matched with a disturbing diet of baked potato, chocolate milkshakes and doughnuts. “Lovely little wine,” says one consumer. “Very smooth… too smooth… don’t feel it going down.” Given that food, it’s surprising there are no reports of what it feels like coming back up.

Wine 7
“Excellent”. Clearly the farmers and estate agents who favour this brand have little time to waste on lengthy comments.Perhaps they’re too busy playing Monopoly, driving, and listening to ELO. These are long jumpers and superbike racers – these are leaders. But they do shop at Sainsburys…

Wine 8
“Muy bien” says one enthusiast, flexing his languages. This wine clearly appeals to the cleverclogs, who like Clive James and David Frost, who listen to Roxy Music and Aretha Franklin, and work in finance, advertising, marketing, and jobs with initials like PR and IT. OK? They’re irreverent, and independently minded. They like skiing and winter games. They eat dressed crab, cassoulet and baked camembert. And they shop at Waitrose. Of course.

How many could you identify? And did you spot Lafite? The answers are here.


Thursday, 3 September 2015

Three Kinds Of Beer

So my wife and I are
back after weeks of technically enjoying ourselves - tired, aching, much poorer than when we set out, and with the car splattered with dead insects as if hit by small arms fire, about the only souvenirs we have of a long, long journey from the Netherlands to the South of France and back again, making extensive use of the now-threatened Schengen Agreement. No, I didn't bring back any wine, even though I could have drowned in it, both French and German (but not Swiss, although they clearly make the stuff). In fact, I didn't even drink that much wine of any sort. Wine, heat and exhaustion (worst heatwave in Germany for a generation, as it happened) are a terrible combination. No. I drank beer: so much beer that I blew up like a balloon and my grimy suntan started to take on a greenish hoppy tinge.

And what I hadn't pieced together, up to now, was that there are of course three kinds of beer to chose from in northern Europe, not just two: blonde, blanche and brune, to use the French terms. This became clear to me while we were visiting some long-suffering German friends near Münster, where our host forced me to contemplate the first two-thirds of this set of options by proposing a choice of Weißbier or Pilsener Bier on an absolutely smeltingly hot day. So I said yes to both - intrigued and slightly troubled by the funky cloudiness of the Weißbier, as if someone had used it for washing-up, and subsequently intrigued and troubled by its aroma of rotten apples and carbolic soap.

It was, yes, a moment of stress: not least because I'd forgotten that I'd ever drunk such a drink, even though I now know I have, back here in London, in the form of Hoegaarden - a beer which, at the time, I must have categorised as a novelty import which only dumb, jaundiced, Londoners would bother with. Was this moody Weißbier peculiar to Münster, I fretted, consoling myself with the easy-going Pilsener to take away the taste? Evidently not. The moment we headed south, it appeared all over the place, Weiß and blanche and wit, like a cloud on the horizon, so that I started to grow apprehensive about ordering anything much, using my recycle-bin French or my Letraset German, in case a blanche turned up on the table, flocculent and vaguely menacing. Even now I can't really be sure whether I like it or hate it.

Brune or dunkles Bier, the third part of the triumvirate, was a lot easier to cope with - usually nutty, firm, a consommé with a head on it - but not always appropriate for the middle part of the day on account of its tendency to send me to sleep with a hundred and twenty kilometres still to drive. It's an evening beer really, a beer that puts it arm across your shoulders and explains how Ginger Baker will always be a better drummer than Charlie Watts. It also, on account of its relative unfamiliarity, tended to point up another great thing about Continental beers, a thing which has nothing to do with taste or composition: the name. Erdinger is fine, I don't bat an eyelid, or Jupiler, or Duvel - but Kwak; or Ritterguts Gose; or Slaapmutske; or Mahrs Bräu Kellerbier Ungespundet Hefetrüb - these are something else, these are beers with names that keep on entertaining long after the last drop has been swallowed. Even the silliest German wines will have difficulty making headway against a perfectly day-to-day, but preposterously-named, beer. It's a bonus.

My personal pick? A pleasant blonde I had in Luxembourg City - one of the most soporific places you'll ever visit - called Bofferding (see illustration). Apparently that was the founder's name - Luxembourgeois Jean-Baptiste Bofferding, who started the brewery in 1842 - but still, to see it peering up from a beermat after a long day just added to my sense of levity and general relief. Naturally, we're not making any comparisons with comedy names like Fursty Ferret or Bitter & Twisted or any of those crappy marketing-strategy confections, designed to confirm your own loveable whimsicality to yourself: the sincerity, the lack of an ulterior motive, is what makes Bofferding so right. To be honest, it's not the greatest-tasting drink I have ever had. I mean, it's okay. But then, how many other beers are an anagram of F. F. Bedgroin?


Thursday, 27 August 2015

A crafty redesign – Banrock Station

It had been a long time since I drank Banrock Station. It may be a long time before I do so again.

I know why I used to drink it; it was to do with consistency. Well, there was an element of price in there as well, but let’s stick with consistency for now.

When you start drinking wine, consistency is one of the most important things; you want to know what you are going to get, without having to memorise a whole load of names, and varieties, and vintages. Only after a while was I able to move onwards and upwards, by filling my head with wine info as if I was cramming for some kind of exam. In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue; in nineteen hundred and eighty four, the Bordeaux vintage was piss poor…

Nowadays, I try to avert my gaze from the branded wines which crowd my supermarket’s shelves. It’s a little like trying not to look at something you know you really shouldn’t, like someone’s wardrobe malfunction, or television property programmes. But this time my eye was caught, by a new label (above) on the serried bottles of Banrock Station.

And you know what it’s like; whether you’re pushing a trolley, or driving your car up to a pedestrian crossing. Once your eye is caught, you just have to stop.

Back in the days when I did buy Banrock Station, it had a diamond-shaped label, a generically modern kind of design for a generically modern kind of wine. It even had a touch of gilt, which made me feel I was getting a little bit of class for my four quid or so:

Essentially, it kept quiet, perhaps not the best way to attract sales, but displaying a modesty which echoed the status of the wine and, frankly, sat comfortably on an equally modest table.

But look what has changed. Perhaps in an attempt to reflect their environmental, “good earth” credentials, they are attempting a rustic, craft kind of vibe. The paper is coarse and matt. The colour is earthy. And the printing is broken and flecked, as if attempting to suggest that the label has been crudely, artisanally stamped from a linocut or woodblock or something.

Now, there is a craft beer, The Kernel, whose label looks like crudely stamped brown paper.  Once, it actually was crudely stamped brown paper; unable to afford properly printed labels, the brewer ordered a basic ink stamp, and handstamped the brown paper labels himself; the thick brown paper then stopped the bottles clanking together when he put them into boxes. Now, the production has hugely increased, and the labels are properly printed – but they still look like handstamped brown paper.

I’m also reminded of the live album Fillmore East, June 1971  by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, an official live recording which was printed to look like an illegal bootleg, with all of the authenticity such an album embodied.

Because in reality, Banrock Station arrives in industrial bulk. A back label (similarly framed in crude, broken lines) tells us that the bottle has been “filled” at “BS11 9FG”. This is the somewhat non-artisanal plant in Avonmouth, Bristol, where bulk-shipped wines arrive from Australia, and whose state-of-the-art bottling lines fill some 400 bottles a minute. Something tells me that this ruthlessly industrial process does not wait for someone to print each label individually from a carved potato.

There’s something here echoing the whole hipster authenticity thing. That uncomfortable conjunction of the appearance of craft with the world of modernity. These chaps who look like Canadian loggers, complete with plaid shirt, outback beard, stylishly weathered jeans and clumpy, half-laced boots. Oh, and a MacBook Air.

No-one, least of all a label designer, is going to make me think of Banrock Station as a small-batch, artisanal product. It never even was (unlike that craft beer). In fact it underlines its global reach by declaring on its label that it “contains sulphites, egg, milk” in no less than 19 languages. (Grapes don’t get a mention.)

And surely, the variations in taste and quality which occur from year to year in genuinely rustic wines would be anathema to a global, mass-market brand? Consistent wine for around a fiver, produced in huge quantity and delivered globally thanks to modern industrial processes. What’s to be embarrassed about?

But then, why do guys who code apps want to look like sharecroppers?


Thursday, 6 August 2015