Friday, January 30, 2009

Pipe and Sippers

I am wearing a cardigan. 

There we go, it feels better for sharing. In fact I now have two of these peculiar front button garments. Maybe my late thirties is bringing on convenience at the expense of style, but I am informed that they are the height of fashion, which definitely means they are so 'out' already. 

Anyway now I have my cardigan out of the closet.. I was sitting by the fire last night in my armchair, puffing on my pipe reading the broadsheets when I noticed a wine story about the lack of consistency of wine tasting judges. 

In tests, over 90 percent of judges failed to give similar scores to identical bottles. They were way off at times. Shock horror, as if anyone really believed that the complex human chemosensory system was a consistent reliable tool. I know that my taste perception changes day to day, in fact 'The Journal of Neuroscience'  published research from the University of Bristol in 2006 that says taste is directly effected by mood. 

Salt and bitterness diminish with increased anxiousness, so imagine a stressed Miles from 'Sideways' tasting a heavily tannic Bordeaux, it would seem like a light fruity Valpolichella, or even Ribena.

Happiness can produce more serotonin in the brain increasing sensitivity to bitter and sweet tastes. Remind me not to try a Tokaji sweet wine whilst in high spirits.

The scientists discovered that taste changes throughout our lives, day to day, even minute to minute. 

Award winning wine labels should include the mood of the taster, perhaps their sense of self- worth, even their mental history. There again forget the mental history, the NHS is doing its best to leave all of our records in a very expensive electronic black hole.

Aside from moods I am sure the delicate chemosensory system gets overloaded during wine tastings. The neurones have lots to deal with, all those thousands of nuances in a sip, brutally mangled verbally by the taster as pretentious descriptors ...'Bavarian bark'... 'turgid tarmac'. Not to mention the effect of seeping alcohol on the brain from an accumulation of absorbed alcoholic residue left in the mouth after attempting to make use of a spittoon. 

The wine itself is also subtly changing character and evolving every day, and this adds yet more unpredictability to the mix, by the time the bottle graces your table.

So electronic sniffers are the future?  There are e-noses and e-tongues out there, what a scary thought. Combine that with manipulation of molecules with computer models in the wine making process, and we end up in a boring colourless sterile world. Wine becomes as predictable and dull as a bottle of Ribena. 

I love the inconsistency of wine and the eccentric cardigan clad pontifications of those who taste it. A wholly human experience.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Sugar Rush

I spent most of the Christmas break in North Norfolk. I left the main roads and followed the dark icy corridors to the coast. This must have been the coldest Christmas for some time. Thankfully the charming rental cottage in Burnham Market was equipped with an electric Aga.

I became very attached to the Aga and it was a wrench to go home without one. Such a versatile chunk of metal with a very good pedigree. Always on, always available to warm, boil, roast or just lean against. A considerable impression for a glorified storage heater. It flawlessly delivered hot croissants in the morning and temperate red wine in the evening. All the better for not having to worry about the electricity it must be sucking up.

My early evening  drink of choice was a Whisky Mac, a combination of Stones Original Green Ginger Wine and Famous Grouse blended whisky. My measures were one glug of whisky to two glugs of ginger wine (the 'glug' is a wildly imprecise measure that is directly related to hand-eye coordination, which in turn is proportional to consumption).

Ginger wine is essentially a fortified wine which is made from fermented raisins and ground ginger. Sounds disgusting, but its rich velvet potency nicely caresses the blended whisky into your belly, providing an inner feeling of winter warmth, much like an Aga has repositioned itself to your core. 

To fortify a wine you have to add alcohol during or after the fermentation process. If added during the process then this stops fermentation and therefore leaves 'residual sugar' behind making the wine sweeter and stronger. Port is an example of this. For something like dry sherry the alcohol is added after the fermentation process, minimising the residual sugar. 

The term 'residual sugar' is fairly self explanatory, a  measurement of a wine's sweetness. Anything over 45 grams of sugar per litre is considered sweet. The residual sugar offset against a balance of acidity, tannin and alcohol levels delivers the actual sweetness. Playing around with acidity can deliver sweet wines with an extremely high residual sugar level, like some of the Hungarian Tokaji at 450 grams per litre. This means, that by my crude maths, there could be the equivalent of about 80 teaspoons of sugar in that 75cl bottle, compare that to Coca-Cola which has about 20 teaspoons of sugar in 75cl. A serious sugar rush.

Long trade voyages in the 16th and 17th centuries were the beginnings of fortifying wine to stabilise it and protect it from the eccentric ship motion and extreme temperature variations. This makes me wonder how my red wine survived intact on the long winding winter drive up to Norfolk.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I have just been to the bank for some cash, you remember, that stuff before credit came and went.

After the transaction had been approved the bank clerk reluctantly stooped down to his 'time locked' safe. What's wrong with me today, I most certainly do not look like one of Patrick Swayze's Ex-Presidents. Perhaps my dying embers of a cold and slightly off-ill snotty look was threatening to the clerk. The timed safe is was. 
The wait  reminded me of my washing machine's infuriating lock, the passing of time dwindled (like Hiro Nakamura from  'Heroes' had just blinked) then finally there was a click and the safe door opened. I had better end the comparison there in case I use the word money and laundry in the same sentence, confusing both myself and my readers, and further marring the bank's reputation...if that is possible.

Anyway I walked through Cambridge with the last of the bank's £20 pound notes in a big Enfield  'loadsamoney' roll feeling slightly edgy (not in a Brand/Ross way). How many days until Christmas?..Nine I think. How many presents had I bought? None. Mild panic. What's more the notes bursting out of  my pocket were not for presents, just bills.
In every window I passed there was a 50% sale on, by the time I buy anything they may be giving stuff away, you can but hope.

I passed a wine shop with some great looking deals. I may well buy wine for some people, but my wine of choice for a present would be a quirky one. Perhaps the vein stripping, fat busting Cillit Bang of all wines, invented recently by and Australian doctor. He has increased, to epic proportions, the levels of a chemical called resveratrol (which I previously wrote about here back in 2006, the longer you write a blog the more your life can seem like Groundhog Day) . He has crammed in the resveratrol content equivalent of 15 to 20 normal bottles of red wine, or 70 to 100 of white.
Apparently resveratrol is tasteless and drinking this wine 'potion' adds immense health benefits, if you forget that you have a liver. 

The new, rather extraordinary Corpus Clock  was next to the wine shop, confusing me as ever. It is both  beautiful and sinister and does not give up the time easily. After little bit of studying I realised my lunch break was over and headed back to the office, where I am now guarding my wad of cash.

Any quirky wine suggestions welcome.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Green Glowing Goo

A year has whizzed by and I have just been to my friends house again for Thanksgiving dinner.

I wrote about it here last year, and always enjoy experiencing pre-Christmas turkey mirroring my American cousins. It must be particularly nice in the USA being able to build up to Thanksgiving in October/November rather than prematurely over-egging Christmas like here in the UK. When the stale chocolate drops out of the first window in the Advent calendar I turn my mind to festivities. Prior to that my subconscious wrestles to ignore the flowing tinsel which fast wraps around every image and town centre, like an untamed rampant glittering weed growing out of season.

The Thanksgiving meal started on rather an unfortunate note as one of the guests did not entirely make it into the cottage on her first attempt. My friends have a huge moat of newly laid cables around their house, yet to be filled in. Combined with the dark evening it ended up swallowing her whole. Thankfully both bottle and guest were in one piece.

The meal was amazing, a real tribute to quirky American cuisine. The candied yams that featured along side the turkey made more of a cameo appearance than last time, but were served with grandeur on a silver salver displaying the mini marshmallows in all of their glory.

I brought two bottles of US wine. A Francis Coppola Diamond Collection Red Label Zinfandel (mainly because the label was quirky, I am a sucker for celebrity endorsements and the hosts love Zinfandel) and also a Cuvaison Winery Pinot Noir which was delicious. The hosts have an amazing wine collection nestling in a very large inglenook fireplace, there is naturally no 1787 Chateau Lafite there (now the worlds most expensive vinegar at about £100,000), but certainly some very fine wines, several of which made an appearance that night.

There are loads of obscure ways that wine producers are trying to combat the wine fraudsters when it comes to the higher end bottles that collectors obsess over. The latest most reliable method is so expensive that it is hardly worth employing. It involves cesium-137, a radioactive isotope (visions of Homer Simpson and green glowing goo) which liberally dusted our dear planet due to mankind's both dark inventiveness and carelessness. This 'fallout' ended up in the wine itself over the latter half of the 20th century and can be detected, and therefore the wine's age can be derived without removing the rotten cork.

I don't think I have ever had the pleasure of trying a wine of over about £50 a bottle, but who says price equates to a delicious wine, complex maybe but the taste is always subjective.