An unusually bad wine

Wine writers very rarely write about horrible wines. Their columns are full of exciting recommendations for readers to buy. There are two reasons for this. Firstly wine writers feel it is important to support wine as an industry. They think it is important that more people start drinking wine and then perhaps they will develop an interest and maybe even start reading wine columns. In this way they function like a provincial newspaper anxious not to be too negative about, say, the restaurant scene in Bolton in case readers decide they don’t want to eat out anymore let alone read a column about it. The second reason is that most wines these days are fine. Even the worst wine at Tesco’s will be merely dull. It’s easy to write about bad but it’s very hard to make a dull wine interesting.

Therefore, I was surprised this weekend when I tried a wine that made me gag. It was the Chocoholic Pinotage 2013. Now of course the name does make it sound nasty and it is made from Pinotage – the grape whose signature flavours are acetone and burnt coffee – but recently I’d had a bit of a Pinotage epiphany so was eager to try it. According to the bumf I was sent it is made from partially dried grapes like an Amarone. I’m a sucker for anything made from dried or partially dried grapes so I actually opened the bottle with something bordering on excitement. I took a sniff, it smelt of instant coffee and chocolate (note there is no actual chocolate in this wine), not a nice smell but a thing of delicate beauty compared with the taste. It’s quite hard to describe the flavour because I had such a visceral reaction to it, there was more coffee and chocolate and then POW!, it was as if someone had grabbed my throat and was trying to throttle me. I took another sip, and BANG!, a wall of acidity and raw tannin made me grimace involuntarily. I stopped sipping at this point. When that had gone, there’s a cloying finish like cheap coffee ice cream. Yes this wine is actually sweet.

DarlingI would say avoid at all costs but it’s so unusually bad, that’s it’s worth trying. It’s probably not, however, worth spending the £11 it costs just to experience its awfulness. It’s available at Harvey Nichols who normally stock such good wines. Perhaps they just saw the label and thought it looked nice. It is a pretty label. The producers say that it goes well with chocolate. You’d be better off with a budget port or just eating the chocolate on its own. 

Home Soleras

I’m afraid it’s more drunken experimentation this week rather than incisive commentary on natural wines or Bordeaux 2012.

Ever since I learned that sherry is created by blending vintages together in a Solera so that the finished drink contains minute quantities of very old wines, I have tried to incorporate Soleras into my everyday life. When I smoked rolling tobacco, I used to put the the dregs from my packet of Cutter’s Choice into the new packet. Thereby small quantities of ancient tobacco were seamlessly blended in with the fresh stuff. Most of the time you couldn’t taste it though occasionally you’d get a really horrible dry cigarette. The reason I did it, however, was to provide a link to the past even if the past was only two years ago. I was trying, in my own studenty way, to create tradition.  I still do something similar with coffee beans.

I was reminded of this blending when last night I poured myself as glass of La Guita Manzanilla. It was from a litre bottle bought at Gerona airport which had been open in the fridge for nearly a week. It had rather lost its nutty bite and I was going to relegate it to cooking duties when I had the bright idea of pouring it into a glass which had a tiny amount of a Rancio Sec (a sherry style wine from Domaine de Schistes brought back from the Rousillon – more on this wonderful drink later) lurking at the bottom. The ratio was something like one part Rancio (mmmmmm rancid) to a hundred parts sherry but difference was startling. It was as if Dr George Clooney in his ER days before he became all political and tedious had applied those electric shock things to it. The nuts were back and how!

It’s worth trying this experiment at home as it gives you an insight into the wonders blending. It sounds heretical mixing two different wines together but this sort of thing is not uncommon in the wine world. Ripasso Valpolicella is made by fermenting the wine on the lees of an Amarone, Cote Rotie used to be fermented on the lees of Condrieu and I think Randall Grahm used to market a wine which was a blend of Washington State and Mosel Rieslings. In the the wider world of drinks, this sort of mixing wouldn’t raise an eyebrow: Scotch owes much of its complexity to being aged in used Sherry or Bourbon barrels.

What I had created was a kind of sherry martini. The Rancio functioned as the Vermouth and the tired Mazanilla as the gin.  Purists might shudder but really rather fine wines can be used as ingredients in cocktails. At a recent trip to a bar in Islington, 69 Colebrooke Row, I had a drink called a Woodland cocktail which was a blend of gin, amontillado sherry and a homemade bitters made from leaves. Rather than being a waste of the rather good amontillado used – something from Fernando Castilla as I recall – it actually complimented and heightened the flavours. The result was utterly harmonious. A word of warning here, though this kind of alchemy works with fortified wines, I very much doubt your best Burgundy would benefit from the home Solera treatment.

The Pleasure of Wine

A wine merchant opened up near my flat in East London about three years ago just as the recession was taking off and people were losing their jobs. They didn’t offer much below £10 a bottle and their expensive stuff came not only from Bordeaux and Burgundy but from Portugal and even South Africa. I gave them a year before they gave up trying to sell £80 a bottle Portuguese wine in Hackney, put up a sign saying ‘much cheapness here!’ and filled the front of the shop with bargain bins. I was wrong, of course, business is booming so much so that they have opened another shop. I asked the owner about this and he said the worse the economy got the better they seemed to do. Rather than going out, his customers were eating take-away fish & chips with a grower’s champagne from the likes of Pierre Gimonnet. That’s a very good evening in for £50. Even in recession-hit Hackney there are plenty of people who can afford that.

Wine, even quite expensive wine, even with our ridiculously high level of taxation, is affordable entertainment; just compare it to restaurants or the theatre or skiing. It’s more reliable too. When visiting a restaurant the food might be vile and the service slow; at the theatre you might be bored rigid, actually be honest with yourself, you will be bored rigid; when skiing you could be killed; but even if the wine is indifferent you can still get drunk. Most wine writers neglect to mention that wine contains alcohol except perhaps to tick it off for having too much. One gets the impression that alcohol gets in the way of the enjoyment of the wine. This is, of course, nonsense. The reason you are drinking wine is because of the alcohol. But wine is so much more than just a drug. If you just wanted to be drunk you would join the Skol Super crowd down at Cambridge Heath station, wine also stimulates the heart and the head.

Certain wines work best on a sensual level. You don’t have to know very much about wine to appreciate the heady perfume of a good Chambolle-Musigny. It’s as close as one can get to listening to music with your nose and the enjoyment feels as instinctive as hearing a beautiful melody. But there is another level of enjoyment beyond the alcoholic and the sensual (and let’s not forget that the two are linked as the alcohol takes hold your senses are heightened), that is the intellectual. This is the area of wine appreciation that attracts the most disapproval. Knowledge of wine is seen as snobbish. I am sure that some people do learn about wine to impress or belittle but they are thankfully rare. Instead learning provides a frame of reference. Now when trying that sublime Chambolle, your brain will be comparing it to other vintages, other vineyards, other producers. You will know how rare it is to have a red Burgundy that really sings like this so you’ll have the pleasure of trying something sacred. Your mind will be linked into the history of the region, it will be a holiday and a history lesson from the comfort of your armchair. All of this mental comparing can be done explicitly if you’re with a fellow wine bore or just done mentally as you drink. It depends on the company. I don’t really approve of blind tastings as this brings in an element of competition that spoils the conversation. It’s like the hostess who insists on a game of charades when you really want to talk and listen.

A good wine should enhance the conversation, make you feel more eloquent than you really are and bring you closer to your interlocutor. This brings me to the ultimate leisure wines. Wines that the Italians call vino da meditazione – these are wines best shared with an old friend you haven’t seen for years or a formerly close but now estranged relative whom you hope to repair things with. From Italy itself you have Amarone and it’s sweet counterpart Recioto- made from dried grapes in Valpolicella, from France the fortified wines of the Rousillon, Maury and Banyuls, from Portugal, Port especially the tawny kind, and Madeira, from Spain an old oloroso sherry and, perhaps my favourite, from Sicily a dry Marsala from a producer such as De Bartoli or Florio. These are wines so rich and complex that you only drink them in small amounts. There are many others, almost every wine producing country produces something in this style, wines that engage the senses, aid thought and conversation, and bring people closer together. These wines are particularly apposite for reticent Englishmen as the wines themselves fill gaps in conversation, no need for idle chatter. An old marsala evoking the sights, smells, music and landscape of Sicily, is diversion enough, requiring only occasional murmur of pleasure from your companion.

All this can take place without any conscious thought. Whilst sipping wine with your old friend, your wife, your lover, talking, laughing, slowly giving in to intoxication, you wouldn’t, or if you are you shouldn’t, be making these distinctions between the intellectual and the sensual, the pleasure of wine and the pleasure of good company. For a moment or a whole evening if you’re lucky, there is harmony between your body, mind and soul. Nothing else comes close, certainly not eating out, theatre or skiing, and you don’t have to leave home or get a baby-sitter.

This article previously appeared on The Dabbler