Post-Election Sardines

Today. Today is not a good day, and was never going to be a good day. Today is a day on which to find objects of gratitude rather than (as is the temptation) of rage.

So, today, I bought sardines.

Sardines, four of the buggers — whole — for under £1.50, are the kind of thing I buy whenever I see them — irrespective of weather, mood or recent national tragedy. Sardines are the polar opposite of the choice in front of me on yesterday’s ballot paper: you can’t go wrong with sardines.

Today, you want a largely hands-free dinner, don’t you? So you can concentrate on drinking. Sardines are your friend. As is roast cauliflower. This is pretty much my favourite way to eat what can be a somewhat dull vegetable. Rather than boiling it, I break it into chunks (not too small) and leaves (for Christ’s sake, don’t throw away the leaves) and chuck it onto a baking tray. Slosh over plenty of olive oil, season with your characteristic generosity, and whack into an oven at 180 degrees centigrade or so (200 for a conventional oven) for 25 minutes. The leaves crisp up and the florets brown. When it comes out of the oven, squeeze a good quarter of lemon over it and serve.

Meanwhile, the sardines. You wipe them clean of any stray scales, lay them on your grill, season and grill under a high heat. The skin blisters and blackens after a few minutes. Turn them and do the same on the other side. Then you’re done.

I had mine, today, with a glass or four of the Wine Society’s very good White Rioja. Lemony, dry, full.

Still, though, somehow — at the end of it — I still had a bitter taste in my mouth.

A plate of sardine bones
Oh, could it be a visual metaphor too?

The Extravagant Complexity of Wine (inspired by white Rioja)

In which Old Parn recounts the tale of his first serious wine purchase — and muses on the notions of choice and experimentation with the aid of a very nice bottle of white Rioja

Closeup of the label of a bottle of white RiojaDo you want to know what I love most of all about wine? Wine is an extravagantly complex universe, with bewildering variety, innumerable secrets and surprises.

I have an embarrassing — borderline clinical — compulsion to try new things. To try ALL THE NEW THINGS IN THE WORLD EVER. When I was a student, I spent a ludicrous amount of my loan (Go Team Maximum Student Loan!) on spirits. ‘Typical bloody student,’ you’re probably muttering, as you rustle your Daily Mail disapprovingly. But, y’see, I spent my loan on every spirit/liqueur I could find. Frangelico? Check. Framboise? Check. Creme de Cacao? Check. Amaretto? Check. Mine was not the shopping list of the typical student, I like to think.

(Christ alive, Parn, eradicate that entirely unwarranted tone of pride from your writing right now.)

Yeah. I wanted ALL THE SPIRITS. Because I wanted to be able to make ALL THE COCKTAILS. As a result, my university bedroom resembled a well-stocked off-license in a wealthy London borough. Except with Radiohead posters and the unmistakable stench of adolescent pretension. People came round to my room for a drink; I gave them a sodding menu.

But then I discovered that — actually — spirits were boring*. The apparent variety of the supermarket spirits section was nothing compared to the variety in my first case of wine. From Majestic.

Let me tell you about that first case of wine. I’d just moved into my first non-student abode. My first shared house. I’d landed my first BIG JOB (putting books back on shelves). I was almost like a Real Grown Up. And as such I decided to do what Grown Ups do: order a case of wine.

(Make your own deductions about my warped conception of adulthood. I don’t care.)

For someone who’d previously chosen his wine from the shelves of Sainsbury’s local, this was a revelation. So much choice! So many unfamiliar names!

I still have that same excitement whenever I browse wines in a good shop (online or off): that vertiginous thrill of bewildering, tantalising choice. The terror of knowing that even if I never drink the same wine twice, I still have no hope of trying them all. And I sincerely cannot imagine being faced with all these tantalising, exotic, unfamiliar names — and then putting a big-brand Australian Chardonnay into my basket. For me, that’d be like going to Thailand and having dinner in Burger King. I don’t mean that to sound snobbish. Because I think that the ‘safe’ ubiquity of big-brand wine is in no goddamn way the fault of customers who are intimidated by incomprehensible choice. Not everyone is a weirdass novelty-seeker like me — and if normal people don’t feel they can explore the unknowns of the wine world, that’s a failure on the part of the industry. But that’s another subject, eh?

So I filled my Majestic basket with unfamiliar fruits. Sure, lots of ’em would be well-known to me now — but then, everything was glimmering and new.

I still remember the first bottle I drank from that case, along with some friends: a white Rioja. And I thought: ‘Whoa. This is interesting. This wine kind of smells a bit like sheep’s cheese or something. How the hell does that work?’

(Nobody else knew what the hell I was burbling about when I said the bit about sheep’s cheese, by the way. They probably thought I was having a stroke.)

If you want to check out the sheep’s cheese thing yourself, I suggest you snap up a bottle of Navajas White Rioja from The Wine Society (****) It’s got that slightly sharp sheepy tang (boy, how appetising I make it sound) that took me right back to that first Majestic bottle. But when you get it into your gob, you’re cavorting with apricots and peaches. It’s dry, mind — and brilliantly, grippingly acidic, holding that jubilant fruit entirely in check.

And it costs £7.25 a bottle.

To me, £7.25 is a miserly amount to spend on a sensory experience that’s so goddamn unusual (so goddamn nice). That £7.25 wouldn’t even buy you a bottle of big-brand plonk in a Bethnal Green off-license (quoth the voice of bitter experience). But here it buys you apricots and sheep’s cheese and nostalgia.

Isn’t that, really, when we get down to it, pretty fucking exciting?

* Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Vina Arana Reserva, La Rioja Alta 2001 review

… is like a sweet mouthful of ripest autumn — and is the nicest wine to grace Old Parn’s palate so far this year

Macro photo of the label of a bottle of Vina Arana Rioja

Vina Arana’s Rioja was the nicest wine I drank this year. As such, I wrote about it effusively.

Then I goddamn well managed to save over the file. What a tremendous great pillock.

So now, like someone on a contrived, low-budget TV documentary, I have to attempt to relive that bygone experience at second hand. Ideally, I’d have some unthreatening smalltime celebrity meet me at my house (he’d knock on the door and I’d answer it as though we’d never met and there weren’t a frigging filmcrew standing five feet away) and interview me about Vina Arana. They’d do some Ken Burns effect stuff with slow, repetitious voiceovers, to conceal an embarrassing dearth of actual material, play some music and make it all (no doubt) rather delightful.

But I don’t have the resources for that shit. Even though I am pretty good at concealing an embarrassing dearth of material. So you’re going to have to make do with me embroidering some notes I wrote on my iPhone. Sozamonia.

So. Drinking Vina Arana is like taking a mouthful of autumn. It’s all russet and ripeness and deciduous nostalgia. Juice-dripping plums, spices, that kind of shebang.

There’s this quality called balance that wine writers burble on about. In fact, as things that wine writers burble on about go, this is one of the less pelvis-gnawingly irritating. Because it’s an actual word that a normal person might understand. But still. What balance means in the case of Vina Arana is that this wine is on a knife-edge of ripeness.

You know how there’s that (maddeningly brief) period during which fruit — a punnet of raspberries, say — is perfectly ripe? A day less and it’s still a tiny bit young; a day more and it’ll start going ever so slightly rotten and degenerate. But right now? Right now, it’s perfect. Right now, that fruit absolutely fucking sings.

And that’s where this wine is. Right goddamn there.

It doesn’t have that loose, woofy, over-the-top quality where the flavours start to become caricatures of themselves. But it could hardly be more ripe. And — like perfect fruit — it’s all about acidity underpinning sweetness.

It’s soft but strong. Firm but gentle. Confident but seductive. It yields and it withstands.

I like wine like this almost as much as I like people like this. (Oh, boy: people like this.) And, like I said, it was the nicest wine I’ve drunk all year.

Now to post this goddamn review rather than cretinously deleting it.

Rating ★★★★★ 5 stars (outstanding)
Region Rioja
Grapes Tempranillo (95%) and Mazuelo (5%)
ABV 13%
Price I got mine a fair while ago for under £20 (I think) from The Wine Society (but it’s no longer available). A Google search throws up a few places still selling it, such as Smithfield Wine (£22.26). Both The Wine Society (£18) andWaitrose (£18.99), meanwhile, are selling the 2004.

Marques de Caceres Rioja Blanco review

… conspicuously lacks the dance, the verve, the pizzazz — in both its label and, alas, its taste

The green and gold label of Marques de Caceres' white Rioja — rather lacking in design style

Take a look at the label. What do you reckon? Any reaction? Any strong feelings?

Or just a blank expression? A shrug?

Yeah. Slightly ugly in an unremarkable kind of way, right? Not horrific. Just mediocre.

Well, in this case, it turns out that label and wine aren’t far from being in accord. Because this is a fairly unremarkable wine. Not offensive, but, really, I can’t see too much of a reason to buy it.

It’s a bit empty, a bit veggy, a bit harsh and globby. Not much finesse. Sure, it’s got a fair old bit of presence around the sides and back of your trap, but it’s conspicuously lacking the dance, the verve, the pizzazz at the front.

And I’m all about the dance. The verve. The pizzazz.

It’s trying to be fruity & summery — but if it’s fruity & summery you’re gagging for, you’d be better off (at this kind of price) with something like Sainsbury’s Gruner Veltliner or Benny D’s Picpoul de Pinet from Naked Wines.

For the price, I guess it’s acceptable (I wouldn’t complain), but — at the same time — there’s better to be had. And better labels, too.

Rating ★★ 2 stars (average)
Region Rioja
Grape Viura
ABV 12.5%
Price £7.99 from Majestic; £6.99 if you buy a couple.

Burgo Viejo Rioja Tinto, Naked Wines

… a Naked wine that’s like silk wrapped around a slightly splintery wooden post. Does that sound sexy to you? Eh?

A bottle of Burgo Viejo Rioja from Naked Wines

Decant! Decant! Decant!

Apologies for that triple imperative — arguably a rather abrupt (if not outright boorish) way to begin a blog post. But if you happen to be in possession of a bottle of this Rioja from Naked Wines, let’s hope you’re also in possession of a decanter.

But before I elaborate, let’s talk a little about Naked Wines, shall we? Because it’s quite a funky idea for a business.

Background: Naked Wines

Essentially, the whole shebang is based on the principle that wine is cheaper the earlier one buys it. The logical extension? You buy up all of a wine before it’s even been made. You are giving the maker the security (so the thinking goes) to spend all their time and money making a good wine. Read more about the business model on their website.

Now, I’m not quite sure what I think about this. On the one hand, it’s an attractively original approach, and fosters engagement between grower and customer; on the other, capitalism is economically dominant for a reason, after all, and an organisation that has to fight for its sales arguably has a greater incentive to strive than one that’s implicitly insured against risk. Does a guaranteed income not potentially lessen the drive for excellence?

But that’s theory. I’m no economist; and, besides, we’re interested — aren’t we? — in practice. So let’s dive into this Rioja.

The review

Okay, so here’s where my opening battlecry of ‘Decant!’ comes in. Because the first mouthful I took of this Naked Rioja was pretty disappointing. Sure, up the snout it has a sweet, enticing, raisiny waft. And sure, my tongue tingled like a fairy on acid — but the taste experience was oddly flat, despite the apparent intensity of the wine, leaving an impression of thinness, hollowness. My palate went largely untouched

And my palate LIKES TO BE TOUCHED, alright?

Enter decanter, stage left. Just as well I had a few thumbs to twiddle while I waited half an hour or so to let oxygen work its magic.

And it was worth twiddling. The wine became noticeably deeper, silkier — filled out, if you will. I’m glad my instincts told me I should try decanting, for I was otherwise poised to give this wine a bit of a belting.

The flavours and aromas (initially underdeveloped) expand to transformative effect. Peppered blackberries (just the way momma made ’em); liquorice. The combination of bitterness and fruit is strikingly like that of biting into a dark, dark chocalate-encased cherry liqueur.

Even after decanting, it’s somewhat austere: spiny, coniferous. In some respects it put me in mind of youthful pinot noir: it has that stalky vigour. That haughtiness. It plays hard to get.

Its bitter roughness, however, isn’t so pinot. I wonder if age would meld these two sides of the wine better? At the moment, it’s like silk wrapped around a slightly splintery wooden post.

(What do you mean, ‘That makes it sound kind of sexy’? Jesus.)

Just because it’s naked doesn’t mean you need to get all pervy about it.

Anyhow, this was the first of my six-bottle ‘trial’ case from Naked Wines. So we shall see how the remaining bottles stack up, shall we? They’re certainly in the game.

Rating ★★★ (but only if you decant it, or let it age a while)
ABV 13%
Price £7.99 from Naked Wines (though if you join as a Naked Wine Angel, you get 33% off all the wines)

The Wine Society’s Rioja Crianza 2006

… will give you some youth, some punch, some spunk. And all for just £7.

Closeup of the label of the Society's Rioja Crianza 2006The Wine Society’s ‘house’ Rioja is a confident, unfussy sort of affair. When you stuff your nose into the glass, you get a nice deep, serious kind of waft: a new pair of leather shoes just out of the box.

This is laced (see what I did there?) with a stalky vitality that lets you know: this isn’t going to be an unctuous, indulgent, wallowable kind of wine, but one with some youth, some punch, some spunk.

And, yeah, it’s not a fusty old Rioja. There’s a nice tannic weight to it, combined with a stinging little bite of sharpness. But these qualities are smoothed over somewhat by mulled red fruits: plums, cinnamon, pepper. And a dab of oak there at the back. Where I like it.

Verdict

Like most of The Wine Society’s ‘house’ range, this is an admirably solid, dependable wine for a very good price. Spend £7 on a Rioja in the supermarket and find one as good as this and you’ll be fortunate indeed.

That said, it’s not flawless. It’s a tad thin in the mouth for my liking, and (for my taste) the sour bite is a little overdone. I’d like this aspect of the wine reigned back a little. So — as I’ve implied — it’s dependably rather than inspirationally good.

Not that I’m so naïve, dear reader, as to expect inspiration for £7. Dependability suits me just fine.

Rating ★★★
ABV 13%
Price £6.95 from The Wine Society

El Quintanal Ribera del Duero 2009, Rioja

…probably won’t metamorphose into a champion

Okay, let’s shimmy our way through a quick Rioja – one I picked up from Oddbins as an alcoholic offering to my dear parents, upon whose hospitality I was reliant over the weekend.

And I wasn’t overwhelmed. By the wine, that is. My parents’ hospitality, of course, was overwhelming as ever.

Now there’s a good welter of mouth-shrinking tannin in this wine (unsurprising, since it’s still very young) so it would doubtless improve with ageing. And its initial flavourburst is full, dark and spiced — though my bottle, at least, was petillant (that is to say, slightly sparkling), which I don’t think can’ve been intended.

But, considering the price, the wine is disappointingly quick to fade in the mouth, with a hollowness that rapidly follows in the wake of its initial assault on the palate.

For over £10, I’d hoped for better. Hell, let me tell you: my parents deserve better.

Verdict

If you happen already have a bottle of this lying around, I’d let it lie a good while longer: it will improve. But I wouldn’t buy it on the expectation that it’ll metamorphose into a champion.

It may be that my bottle wasn’t a good example (witness that incongruous fizz). But if you find yourself shuffling round Oddbins, looking for a bottle to impress your parents, I suggest you give this chap a miss. It’s not bad, but you could do much better for the money.

Rating ★★☆☆☆
ABV 14%
Price £10.99 from Oddbins