Saturday, August 15, 2015

Wine 2015

I have written a lot on wine professionally – columns, columns and columns on it.
            So that when tasting some 2000 wines a year, writing on the subject was easy – well, it could have been easy if done in the way that many wine writers can, and do, by just describing wine (mainly ones offered for free or at merchants’ wine-tastings). For readers this is pretty boring – especially when you actually want to drink the stuff and not read about it. And when I read these columns and want to go out and buy some bottle or other, the purveyors have either run out of stock or not even known about what was recommended.
            So to make wine writing interesting it had to be incorporated into a story of some sort. That was, for me, the pleasure of telling about wine in a fun kind of way.
            Now I am just an ordinary punter, buying wines from many sources and often, I fear to say, being disappointed – even with the higher priced wines when expectations have matched the cost.
            The new discount stores of German origin do us proud. Their cheapest wines are quite drinkable, but their more expensive ones tend to disappoint.
            Red wines (as opposed to white) from any source are diverse and varying in character. Chilian reds have quality as a rule, as do those from Argentina. Australian reds have, in my opinion, fallen off. They were once robust and full of punch. But they now tend to ape European wines. Or, perhaps, with the popularity of roving Australian wine-making experts, European wines are aping the new Australian wines. Anyhow, like South African wines, there are plenty of good ones to be found if you look around. And, after it all, it’s just a matter of taste anyway.
            We now rather like the reds from Ribera del Douero, and from farther down the river where it passes through Portugal on its way to the Atlantic, the reds from Douro. We seldom go wrong with them. Lower Rhônes, too, are favourites, as are those from Puglia in Italy.
            Ordinary claret from Bordeaux, is mostly a lot of rubbish – especially to one who learned about the wines from that region when the 1960s were château wines, splendid, and plonk – plonk prices that is. Then I didn’t necessarily know the châteaux, but certainly the years. The best that I ever tasted though were the 1959s. Lyon’s Wine Cellars, at The Hop Exchange, where they bottled from cask and re-cycled all bottles from clients, sold Château Cantenac Brown at the then heady price of 7/6 a bottle that did me proud. Their re-cycling methods were to immerse and rotate the bottles in a huge tank of boiling water that soaked off the labels and cleaned the bottles. I know that bottles should be, and are, sterilised, but the alcohol in wine does that anyway. It was here that I saw the labels from cheap Hock being soaked off to have royal be-crowned labels substituted.
            Sugar is often added to wine to increase the alcoholic content (often against the rules) – especially in years of poor weather. But now 13%, 14% and even 14.5% wine is becoming commonplace, often much to the detriment of the wine. When I looked after a villa in the south of France in the early 1950s, I would take containers to the local purveyor of bulk wine in Grasse to have them filled. There, red wine was offered at 10%, 11% and 12%. I generally bought 10% as the weather was hot and the wine, besides being a pleasure to swig was thirst quenching as well.
            Having witnessed quite a lot of skulduggery in the wine world, we might as well join in. I often blend wine (which many wine-makers do anyway) and am not averse to adding some red wine (not much) to white wine to make rosé. Champagne-makers do so, and it was common practise with cheap rosé in the past (and, perhaps present). The extraordinary thing is that this seems to improve the white no end. And the result is happy summer drinking outside – en carafe!
            Whatever happened to Bulgarian wines? They were a wonderful introduction to wine in my youth but, probably due to politics, hardly feature nowadays, The conditions in that country for making fine wine are wonderful.
            White wines, with the prevalent use of cold fermentation, seem to me to be much of a muchness. New Zealand whites give me a faint reminder of when in far off days I made excellent sparkling wine from elder flowers. But New Zealand whites, like English, can be a bit too expensive.
            I do like screw tops, but miss corks – the latter telling as much, if not more, about the wine inside the bottle than what happens to be printed on the label.
            Wine can be taken far too seriously and tends to engender snobbery. It is a God-given way of civilised enjoyment (abused at times). And as for rules, if there are some they are there to be broken.           

As we are changing from Windows to Apple computers, there may be a delay with my blogs until we have sorted it all out. Wish us good luck. I expect we will need it.


There are not many more pleasant ways of passing a summer’s day in England than watching cricket in fine weather
            In front of you is a large area of grass, dotted about with men or women dressed in white.
            Around the field are spectators who watch avidly, yet go off to lunch and return from formal dining or picnic well after the game has restarted after the interval.
            Cricket is a physical game, a psychological game, and a mathematical game. If you are good at all those you could become either a cricketer or a knowledgeable spectator. If not, like me, you can just love the game, enjoy the skills or ineptitudes on show, have a very nice time watching only the best, and for the rest of the time reading the daily scores in newspapers to keep in touch.
            It is a game that encompasses people from all walks of life, with very seldom any violence, but sometimes inebriation. Matches can be exciting, but more often a bit boring and attritional. During those doldrum times there is a lot to occupy one’s mind and eye.
            The weather has a strong bearing on the game – its techniques and result. And if you were an airman, like me, the cloud formations, types, and wind direction, occupy the mind and give the pleasure of prediction.
            Then there are the spectators – English at their most English, regardless of their origins. Rowlandson and Hogarth would be in their element depicting the English cricket spectator. Exaggerations of facial structure in those 18th century faces of theirs that we think to be a bit grotesque and exaggerated are much in evidence among a Test Match crowd. And spectators’ dress, even formal dress, is also exaggerated, and sometimes most stylish.
            Hats can be of any shape or colour, and are much needed in sunny weather. These are worn mundanely or with style, from Panama to cloche.
            Near to me one day was a man with a simple black cricket cap on his head. Every 28 seconds, give or take four or five seconds, he took it off to scratch his scalp of sparsely-growing grey hair, then to run his fingers through it like a comb, before replacing the cap on his head. This continued for as long as I took notice of it.
            Dull-looking food often comes from browning Tupperware boxes to be accompanied by red or white wine – sometimes Champagne. A man in front of me consumed an entire bottle of the latter before his lunch, drinking from a plastic wine- glass.
            And then, of course, there is the nodding off. Whatever the intensity of the game, the effects of alcohol and/or the customary afternoon nap, will take its toll. Bodies slump, heads drop. A wicket falling wakes the dozer from slumber for that person to start clapping, not knowing exactly why or what happened on the field of play.
            Aeroplanes, birds (I once saw a pair if ospreys circle high when passing overhead) are useful objects on which to concentrate when batting is slow.
            And when the lunch interval is reached, a pint of cold beer restores the spirits and engenders animated cricket conversation among friends.
            No wonder that this either elaborate or simple game, in all its newly adapted styles, binds together so many races and ages of civilised people.

Sporting Guns

Quite recently I came across someone who organises shoots in wintertime. So I have been reminiscing about a few of my shooting experiences, some of which I may have mentioned previously in my blog.
            Shoots can be rough shoots where a few friends and a dog or two walk the hedgerows and copses in an effort to make birds fly and become targets for the usually country-bred marksmen.
            These are pleasant winter walks to exercise the muscles, take in the fresh air,  and to give the dogs a run.
            Should a pheasant or two be bagged, it would be destined for the oven or pot soon afterwards, and much enjoyed.
            In my family’s home in the country these pheasants were hung up in the larder by two of their tail feathers. When the birds fell to the floor they were ready to be cooked. So they were often very high, ripe, and maggoty. But that was the taste for game in those far off days. I cannot recall if it was mine.
            At that time I had a small “garden gun”. This was a bolt-action .22 bore and had little cartridges that disintegrated when the tiny shot, with the charge behind them, left the barrel. The guns were made, I suppose, for keeping the rat population under control. I loved that gun, as young boys do.
            One day, out of season and with my parents away, I saw a pair of partridges walking in the vegetable garden – and shot them. Very unsporting, out of season, and not flying, there was hell to pay in the form of the back of a clothes brush on the bottom.
            Later in life, and with a 12 bore shotgun inherited from my father, I had joined a rather smart “cocks only” end of season shoot on a friends estate.  Actually I much preferred being a beater, as this involved orderly walking through woods and tapping one’s stick (mine was of bamboo and made a good noise when using it to strike a sapling or tree) to make pheasants fly toward a line of guns.
            Anyhow, next to me on this shoot was a man who was, or had been, running Purdey – probably the smartest maker of sporting guns in England.
            He saw my gun and asked about it. It was a William Evans.
            On inspecting it he almost went into a rage. “William Evans! That’s one of the worst things that ever happened to Purdey,” he said. “William Evans should never have left us.”
            William Evans had left Purdey to set up on his own (“William Evans late of Purdey”) almost a hundred years earlier. Such is sporting memory and gunsmith history.
            My father, just before the First World War, after graduating from Wye Agricultural College, went, under Government sponsorship, to Egypt (then our Protectorate) to irrigate and grow things with Nile water in the desert – or something of that order.
            As he had omitted to take his gun, he asked his father, the great rosarian, then Vicar at Stratfieldsaye, to send it out.
            My father’s name and his Cairo address were put onto a label, and then glued to the leather gun case. George V stamps were added before the gun was posted – just like that. Try posting a gun to Egypt in these troubled times.
            I loaned the gun to the Home Guard on joining the RAF during the war.
            The cartridges then had candle wax mixed in with the shot. These were to become lethal projectiles at close quarters when and if the Germans invaded our country.
            But the gun was neglected (they do need constant and careful attention) and the barrels had become rusty by the time I managed to recover it.
            The barrels failed the “proof” test, so I had to replace them.
            The makers, William Evans, gave me a price, which, in impecunious times, was so expensive as to be quite out of the question. So I obtained quotes from the Army and Navy Stores and others.
            During this process I learned that all barrels were made and fitted at the same factory in, I think, Birmingham. Then they were returned to the gunsmiths for adornment and finishing.
            So I went for the cheapest replacement offered, which was at Gamages – a large department store at the time. They were perfect (full choke left barrel as ordered) – but without provenance.
            I gave the gun to a son, who, when stringent security regulations came into force, decided it was not worth the trouble and sold it at auction.
            None of us had any use for it any more. But that gun had a history, some of which must still be stuck to its leather case.