The Decadentathlon

Is it nearly over yet? Have the hair shirts gone back into the loft now? Perhaps only a wine seller would notice, but there seems to have been an awful lot of people giving up drink since Christmas. The “Dryathlon” in January kept a lot of people off the pop, kept even more off it in February when they tried to get it right second time around, and has galvanised some into giving it up for Lent! And what, I ask you, is this “Dryathlon?” I’m sure there are many athletes out there who feel their remarkable endurance is humbled by association with the piety of a bloke who can spend a full month pottering about with a cup of tea, and I fancy they’d consider giving it up altogether in the light of the listless Lenten consummation of temperate holiness!

But what of the achievements of the devout intemperate, the sipper for all seasons, his athleticism matched only by the elegant fertility of his imagination? He who can turn a swift half into a four-hour marathon, a tasting sample of wine into ten rounds with the rest of the bottle, the Daley Thompson of occasional squiffiness? To him, or to her, we dedicate the Decadentathlon, ten events for April that would assail the abstemious, knock spots of the spartan and topple the temporarily teetotal, rich with their own challenges and rewards…

1. Shooting. (“I’ll be back in a bit, I’m just shooting down to the pub”)

2. The 100 Metres. (The distance to the aforementioned pub).

3. The 400 Metres. (The distance home, several hours later, from the same pub).

4. The High Jump. (The welcome home from the pub).

5. Cross-Country. (The move from French white to Spanish red).

6. Pole Vault. (The leap of enthusiasm prompted by the suggestion of some Wyborowa vodka shots).

7. Shot Putting. (The swift consumption thereof).

8. Swimming. (A horizontal event, assisted by your bedroom walls and furniture).

9. The 1500 Metres. (The bare minimum of fresh air required to offer even the slimmest chance of getting through the swimming event).

10. Fencing. (The realisation the following morning that you have, between some of the preceding nine events, purchased an item of dubious provenance).

Year-round Decadentathletes, torch bearers of the Vintner Olympics, we salute you! Have a wonderful April. Or should that be Cabernet-pril..?



The Ordure Of The Day

Does anything in our shopping basket recycle its own ordure quite as romantically as wine does? While other items find their way to the shelf via the path of purity, the wine route demands wellingtons, and its aisle presents us with a whole glossary of evocative terms which ultimately tell us that we want this stuff because it’s full of gunge. Indeed, the quantity of it we want seems to be in direct proportion to the amount of contributory gunge, delivered in such cunning guises as:

1. Maceration. This gives red wine tannin, body and colour, and entails leaving the wine on the stems, stalks and skins left over after pressing – none of which you’d otherwise have much use for. Least of all putting into your mouth. If you want a big, meaty, deep-coloured and tannic beast of a wine, then the chances are it will have sat for some time on its own detritus.

Mmm, detritus.

Mmm, detritus.

2. The Ripasso Method. This is a popular Italian way of producing often delicious wine, whereby grapes are fermented over the residuum of the production of another wine, usually Amarone. So all the stuff that was unpleasant enough to feature in point one lives to fight another day!

3. Filtration. Many wines will produce some sort of unpleasant sediment, and will need some amount of filtering before bottling. The extent of filtration will depend on the whim of the winemaker, so the consumer might get to enjoy some unpleasant sediment as well!

4. Fining. Even after filtration the wine will need to be clarified, as residual proteins can make it look unappetising. So to get your tummy rumbling it will be treated with ground fish bones, or dried egg white, or even with a clay called bentonite. Yum, perfection achieved!

5. Muscadet Sur Lie. “Sur Lie” translates as “on the lees,” the lees being a layer of gunk produced by dead yeast cells during the fermentation process. The flavours of the wine are enriched by prolonged contact with said gunk, especially if treated to battonage, which is the process of stirring up the gunk from time to time. Idiomatic French speakers might also recognise “sur lie” as a regional dialect term meaning “on gunk.”

6. Riddling. Champagne is produced by the secondary in-bottle fermentation of a still wine, and thus can’t avoid a certain amount of precipitate because the lees form in situ. Riddling is the process, manual or mechanical, whereby the bottles are gently tilted to encourage the precipitate to accumulate in the neck. Mmm, keep talking! And after that…

Riddling in action!

Riddling in action!

7. Disorgement. The goo is frozen into a pellet, the cap is removed and the pressure of the bottle ejects it. All over the place.

8. Crusted Port. Port revels in its involvement with its attendant refuse, but honorary mention can surely be made of the crusted port style. This receives additional bottle-ageing so that more crud can develop, and so that the producer can call the end product “crusted,” while meaning “crud-enriched.”

9. Decanters. Now you’ve been persuaded to pay more for a bottle of wine that’s clearly superior because it’s full of crap, you will be encouraged to buy an expensive crystal decanter to pour it into, because, hey, what’s all that crap? Who on earth would want that?

Well, otherwise it'd go off...

Well, otherwise it’d go off…

10. Flor. While ageing, a fino sherry runs the risk of oxidation. To lessen the risk, a protective layer of yeast residue called flor is encouraged┬áto form across the surface of the wine, offering an attractive seal against the perils of the outside world. This not only adds depth and tanginess to the wine, but it also illuminates a process whereby a wine’s own cack can stop it from turning into cack; a bit like never washing your hair to preserve its nourishing oils. Except it works. But perhaps a Lifetime Achievement Award can go to…

11. Wine Writing. Like wine itself, wine writing is often enriched by a healthy dollop of sludge. It might occasionally leave an unpalatable taste, but without the odd blast of madness, delusion and controversy, wine writing would be a dull and monochromatic documentary, instead of a three-dimensional, technicolour experience that offers a rewarding plot for every different taste and which keeps the audience coming back for more. Keep the crap in there, it’d be horrible otherwise!

Mike Stoddart.

Master of Reality

Friends and Countrymen,

The people at the Liverpool Food and Drink Festival have asked me to host a wine masterclass at their event in the Sefton Park Palm House on Wednesday, 26th March. This is right up my street! What do they want me to do? “Er, you just bring some wines, and, well, talk about them for half an hour…”

So far, so good. I can talk about wine for half an hour, if I leave some stuff out. But there remained a nagging question: when does a class become a masterclass? Is there a line of factual esoterica which separates the men from the boys? When does a piece become a masterpiece? Has a masterstroke ever been just a stroke? Conferring mastery upon oneself is inimical to your modest grape slave, and, I imagine, to many of you reading this. It’s all right if you’ve got a Master’s degree, or even if you’re a Master of Wine, because then the mastery has been foisted upon you by a third party. So in light of my somewhat lower wattage academic performance, should I be hosting a CSE-Class..?

Two of the “masterclasses” I’ve attended over the years spring readily to mind, equally distinguished by their absolute Mastery. The first concerned the wines of Italy, and the host opened with: “I’ve been in the wine trade for nearly twenty years now, and I still can’t get my head around Italian wine…” How could this go wrong? The second saw me looking after somebody from a leading Port house, who did the honours with increasing amiability as he neglected to spit even a drop of his bewitching ambrosia, and who soon found himself quite moonstruck. So moonstruck, in fact, that I had to help him on to a tram from Altrincham to central Manchester, (“get back on the tram, we’re only in Timperley…”) and then steer him into the lobby of his hotel. That moon, eh, it doesn’t half get people leathered!

The reality of the Palm House masterclasses will probably be a little less altered, however. The LFDF wants more than anything to give a platform to local independent wine merchants, who are as close to being masters of their own universe as we might reasonably expect, and who, in a competitive climate, prefer to put themselves forward as at least vaguely professional. Not one of them is likely to tell you that they still haven’t gotten their head around this wine lark, they don’t usually need any help getting home and they have in the main cultivated a reassuring degree of spittoon expertise, in spite of what their insistence upon wearing an apron might suggest. What makes them think that wine might offer any path to economic comfort is a subject for a separate blog post at the very least – maybe even a self help manual – but we must applaud their resistance to retailing homogeneity and their steadfast belief that people want and deserve something better. Would any of us read a book consisting of a sweetened approximation of literature? Would we listen to a glibly professional jazz solo bereft of squeaks, honks and blats? The indies know we wouldn’t, and they’re not about to let us do the same with our wine. So maybe my question’s answered itself, and it becomes a masterclass when it’s fuelled by such belief and delivered by people who don’t know how to stop informing us! I still might think twice about letting them run amok on the Timperley tram, though…

See you on Wednesday,

Mike Stoddart