Picking up the pieces: Lessons learned from a Champagne sabrage on New Year’s Eve

ID-10082783It was about 4:30 p.m. in British Columbia, Canada, when my sister’s iPhone buzzed merrily to tell her she had just been sent a video on iMessage.

The caption: ‘Four minutes of me and K.N. swearing while I open a bottle of Champagne. Happy New Year!”

Not the most traditional of New Year greetings, but first consider the circumstances. The night began with us savouring bottle of Domaine Jasmin Pinot Gris 2012 from a tiny vineyard on Thetis Island, B.C. Very likely the only bottle from this winery to wend its weary way to the U.K., we were sure to enjoy it while out taste buds were still capable of appreciating what we were drinking.

Then we progressed to the Prosecco, a fine example from Conegliano, which we dispatched in good time. And because we hadn’t yet eaten dinner and the night was still somewhat young, there was the humble but entirely appropriate Bottega Vinai Lagrein Dunkel 2011 to go with dinner. It was at this point that I started to lose the ability to appreciate whatever was in my glass. My head was growing a bit fuzzy and my palate tired. But this was New Year’s Eve and I wasn’t going to let a little fatigue slow me down.

So of course I felt that it was now coming up to just the right time to chop off the top of a bottle of Champagne. And even better, it absolutely must be recorded, I announced with all the confidence of someone who appeared to have done it dozens of times before – but had only ever stood next to someone who did.

I had my moments of doubt, of course, but I learned from my father the trick of closing one’s eyes and just hoping for the best. Using this method, similar to the Hail Mary play in American football, things tend to pan out for the best nine times out of time.

As it happens, sabring a bottle of Champagne is actually incredibly easy. It is also incredibly easy not to put any thought into where the top end of the bottle will be fired. Particularly when you are operating on the pinot gris, proseccco and lagrein that came earlier in the evening.

Note the position of the window in the video below:

When my sister watched the video, by which time it had become distorted and blurred by the compression process needed to sent over the mobile network, she likely didn’t see the look of concern that fell over my face just a few seconds after I popped the cork. This moment, in which my face dropped from pure satisfaction to genuine worry when I wasn’t sure if I had just caused irreparable damage to half of my kitchen, was ultimately too blurry to catch and, thankfully, rather brief.

However, the following are, very likely, not ideal places to aim a bottle of Champagne when deciding to carry out a sabrage:

  1. Windows that you would prefer not to shatter
  2. Wine glasses
  3. Glass tables
  4. Drying racks full of fragile dishes and crockery
  5. Coffee mugs and tea cups
  6. Cats
  7. Small children
  8. Big children
  9. People and living creatures in general
  10. Other people’s cars
  11. Televisions and computer monitors
  12. Light fixtures
  13. Paintings and other works of art
  14. Bedding

In this case, my cork-shaped missile was launched in the direction of numbers 1, 4 and 5 above. It narrowly missed the window and the coffee cups, but I made a direct hit against a large ceramic mixing bowl and the rest of the contents of the drying rack.

Much to my delight, I hadn’t broken anything. But the following day I was charged with the task of carefully unstacking the dishes, sweeping up all of the glass shards that were scattered on the just-wash dishes, a re-washing anything that looked remotely tainted by small flecks of green glass.

Just as the Hail Mary pass can help you get away with a desperate move from time to time, I got away with it on this occasion.

Next time I’ll aim the bottle in the other direction – and hope that it doesn’t fly through our kitchen’s glass ceiling.

Credit: Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Wine shop Where’s Waldo? (Wally if you’re British)

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I don’t like to admit it, but I’m a stereotypical man when it comes to shopping. Confronted by myriad options, I panic and try to rush the process, usually to my own detriment.

I have a long-running track record of coming home with bags full of new clothes only to discover they are all the wrong size.

Plus I am easily swayed by salespeople. If I tell them I want to buy product X, somehow I walk out with product Y instead – and then regret it later.

Twice now I have walked into a wine shop to buy a bottle of Au Bon Climat (they have a terrible website, by the way) only to walk out with something I probably didn’t want.

For me it seems bottles of ABC are as elusive as the Holy Grail was to Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.

It’s safe to say the buying process can be a struggle for me, so I find it unhelpful if the bottles of wine are arranged though the shop is managed by Rob Gordon from High Fidelity. Imagine if the bottles were arranged autobiographically rather than by country, region or colour.

These shops exist. Because I’ve been to them.

Finding what you want in these places is impossible without seeking help an employee. And I think that is part of the tactic, because whenever I’ve come in looking for X, they always seem to steer me, through subterfuge and sensory overload, to something else. Something more expensive. Something that, in my cynical mind, probably isn’t selling fast enough.

Now, you would think arranging a few bottles on a wine shop’s shelves is straightforward.

All you need to do, really, is have a different shelf for each country and then separate the white wines from the red wines. Then on other shelves you have space for Champagnes and sparkling wines, dessert wines, Ports, sherries and anything else.

Simple. So simple, in fact, wine shops up and down the country do exactly this, from the cavernous Majestic Wine Warehouse to the neighbourhood vintner and even the fusty merchants like Berry Bros & Rudd and so on.

Even the supermarkets – known for their efficiency at delivering products to customers’ hands – dare not meddle with this system. They know what’s best.

Yet there is always someone who thinks there must be a Better Way™ to do things.

I can think of two shops within shouting distance of my home that have shunned the conventional layout.

Offender number one has no signs on the shelves at all. It simply has all the whites on one side and all the reds on the other. After a few confused minutes of staring blankly at all the bottles, it eventually occurred to me which ones were white and which were red.

Then a few minutes later I figured out they were, in fact, arranged by country – but not in anything that resembled alphabetical order.

Last I checked Germany comes before Spain in the alphabet. Unless they’re referring to the country as Espana. But if you’re going to use Espana on the one hand, you had better be using  Deutschland on the other.

The other shop I visit takes it a step further and arranges everything by grape. Yes – by grape.

If you want to tell prospective customers they’re really not welcome in the shop unless they are knowledgeable to identify what they want by its constituent grapes (and it better not be any fucking merlot), you know you’re dealing at the higher end of the market.

But how helpful is this for the average consumer? Think back to a time before you knew much about wine. Think back to when you knew the wine only as St Emilion or Saumur, as Rioja and Chianti. A time when you couldn’t name the grapes used to make them.

Merlot? Cabernet franc? Tempranillo? Sangiovese? Would you have thought to head for the shelf with those grapes labelled at the top? Handy for those of us who wake up and say, “Today I’d like to buy a bottle of chenin blanc and I want the shop to arrange all of the world’s chenin blancs together in one place so I can compare and contrast.”

But not so handy if you wake up and say, “I just want a bottle of Vouvray, whatever the hell it’s made of.”

And don’t even get me started on some of the blends I’ve seen. Cabernet-shiraz. Chenin blanc-chardonnay-viognier. Or how about Olaszrizling-furmint-hárslevelü-juhfark?

Do they have a shelf for that?

On not drinking a wine before its time (And how to do it cheaply)

Okay, so I’ve been admonished.

Friends and readers who say they just want to buy a modest bottle of wine and not have to endure wade through my ramblings about posh wines have spoken their minds.

“Write about wine I can actually afford,” people have said.

And I will, but not before I say something important about wine that just happens to involve bottles costing a lot of money.

Here goes: I’d say it’s safe very few of us actually get to drink wine of any significant age. Wine we see in specialist shops – and particularly supermarkets – tends to be released at a relatively young age for early drinking. That is a fact.

It is widely known that most bottles sold are opened on the same day they are bought; only true wine nerds care to mess about with any of that cellaring faff (people like me, I suppose). Most of the world lives bottle to bottle.

Add to this the fact producers sell a lot of wine young because they need the revenue and you have a society full of wine drinkers who have never tried something truly mature.

This is a shame. And I will tell you why.

Never a wine before its time

Orson Welles famously said in advertisements for wine brand Paul Masson (ironically not one you would *ever* age in a cellar), “We will sell no wine before its time.”

Even if Paul Masson wasn’t the sort of wine you would brag about drinking, the message was at least right.

A couple weeks ago this mantra was reinforced in my mind when I attended a wine tasting of the 2003 and 2004 vintages of Bordeaux estates Chateau Calon-Segur and Chateau Phelan-Segur at an event hosted by Schroders for personal finance journalists (full disclosure: Schroders organised and paid for the wines). First, we started the night with Joh. Jos. Prüm’s Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2003, which itself was an education in drinking medium-term aged riesling.

The aroma of gasoline/petroleum was almost off-putting at first, hitting your olfactory centre with a pungent rush that might have turned off shy wine drinkers. This was a far cry from your father’s bottle of Black Tower.

After this, we sat down for the main event, where we compared the 2003/04 Calon-Segur with the 2003/04 Phelan-Segur. The Calon-Segur, known for being the bigger, better and more expensive of the two, was still tight and closed at nearly a decade old.

Meanwhile, the 2003 Phelan was starting to show its age a little more and, arguably, was more mature and closer to being ready for drinking.

A few days later the Segur’s youth was driven home when I drank something truly mature – a bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1978.

I can’t really help myself but transform into Miles from Sideways and bore you to tears with the way the wine was showing its age by bricking at the edge, how the tannins were full integrated into the wine, or how it had aromas of leather, cedar and tobacco.

But I will say the exercise illustrated just how much potential the wine would have had if it had been, well, not opened so soon.

This point was re-affirmed the day after the Lafite experience when, armed with a bottle of Calon-Segur 2004 that had been opened but not used at the tasting earlier in the week (I pushed the cork back into the bottle, to keep it perfectly fresh for a few more days), I opened again it for a friend at dinner.

And it was…still tighter than a rusted nut and loaded with tannin.

If all this wasn’t enough, yet more mature wine came my way. The following evening we cracked open a bottle of Dom Perignon 1996.

You know how a lot of Champagne is very acidic, bright, bubbly and seems to cut through everything you might have eaten, including your gums?

You see, you don’t get that with properly mature Champagne. Everything just…sings in harmony.

Now to the money-saving bit

So here it is. If you want something with more maturity and a decent dose of bottle age, Rioja is a good bet. I am always blown away by how cheap and well-made the wines of Rioja are. Something like a gran reserva will have spent a lot of time in barrel and yet more in bottle before being released, quite often for a fraction of what you’ll pay for equally fine wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy. Same with Port, Madeira and Sherry.

If you want to drink something grown up and complex, I’d look south to the Iberian peninsula.

Recently I bought a bottle of Rioja from the 1996 vintage for less than £15. In general, unloved wine regions can be a source of wonderful wine bargains. I bought a bottle of Chateau Calon Montagne-St Emilion 1996 for €8 when I was in Bordeaux. Why was it so cheap? Because the Montagne-St Emilion appellation is a lesser cousin to St Emilion and, therefore, is not as popular among wine drinkers.

And there you go; something affordable to consider.

My visit to the Wine Pantry: A tiny corner of English wine heaven

NOT FAR FROM my office in Southwark is a small shop in Borough Market that sells nothing but English wine. It’s smaller than my bedroom, has bottles stacked to the ceiling and looks like it would be downright uncomfortable working there in the winter given opens like a garage-door onto the street.

But the Wine Pantry seems to be doing something right. In the short time I was there, people were out front sipping from glasses in the sun and there was no shortage of people popping in looking for something new to try.

A decade ago, or even five years ago now I think about it, this would have been a laughable business model. Just imagine how the conversation might have gone with a bank manager back then, when English wine was mostly a curiosity except for a few Champagne-beating sparklers.

A shop selling just English wine? When there’s a wine lake in France overflowing our shores already?

Much has changed in the English wine market lately. The quality is now becoming exceptional, and that’s not just the fizz. Also, it seems enthusiasts are willing to pay the higher prices this wine commands now it’s of a high enough calibre, whereas in the past anything other than the fizz was often of touch-and-go drinkability.

My introduction to the Wine Pantry was one of mild embarrassment where I was put on the spot by my good friends. Knowing I blog about wine here, on www.12×75.com and also at Ella Mag, they thought it absurd I’d never stopped in previously. And they’re right; I’ve procrastinated ever since the shop opened.

Knowing I was a wine blogger, the two women in the shop were quick to give me samples of every manner of wine they had in stock, ranging from sparklers I’d lusted after for some time (after all these years I finally got to try Break Bottom) to still whites, rosés and reds that no one will ever see in a supermarket.

Will I be back again? Definitely. I fear I’ve fallen madly in love with this place. For every wine I tried, there were four or five more to sample on my next visit.

That evening I walked away with two wines from Wine Pantry, one of which was a gift from a friend and the other a gift to myself.

The gift from my friend was a Hush Heath Estate Nannette’s Rosé 2010, made from the second pressing of the estate’s sparkling rosé.

Nannette’s is a delicate rosé that is pale in colour and has just a hint of a strawberry aroma, as all good pink wines should. This is certainly no fruity imposter. It’s more mineral and grassy in flavour, with low alcohol that is perfect for sunny days in the garden with perhaps some seafood to keep it company. I was reminded of proper Provençal rosé, with its pale, almost salmon pink colour, and complex palate.

Switching gears slightly, the gift I bought for myself was the Breaky Bottom Cuvée Francine 2007 sparkling wine. Made from the standard three Champagne grapes – chardonnay, pinot noir and pino meunier – as well as the estate’s somewhat quirky use of seyval blanc, this is still a bit young and needs time in bottle to develop more of those Champenois flavours that are hanging around in the background.

My beef with most English sparkling wine is it is released to the market far too early, a long time before their complex flavours have truly come to the fore. Another year or two in bottle can’t hurt almost any of the fizz coming from these shores and the same can be said of this one from Breaky Bottom. If I drink it before the year is out, it will be because I had a moment of weakness.

Oh Mateus, it’s not enough for me: A tale of two new bottles

A FEW YEARS AGO I was searching for a thank-you gift for a friend of mine who did me a favour.

Me being me, I couldn’t give him a bottle of whisky and be done with it; I had to buy him a gag gift as well just to make him squirm for a little while.

Being a wine geek, he has deeply entrenched views on those cheap, branded wines sold in supermarkets to the masses. The mere mention of Piat d’Or is enough to send him into a rant about what those wines say about the people who buy them. Top tip: If he ever invites you over for dinner, you had better not bring him Piat d’Or.

So there I was in the local off licence looking for something to give my friend a coronary, surrounded by bottles of Blossom Hill, Gallo Turning Leaf, Barefoot, Echo Falls; basically I was in the middle of a motley crew of lowest-common-denominator grape-flavoured alcoholic beverages.

And then that bulbous brown bottle caught my eye.

Mateus Rosé. Hideous in appearance, revolting in flavour. Ah, Mateus, how could I have gone so long in life having forgotten you?

As expected, when I presented the bottle to my friend, feigning pride and gushing about how I wanted to show my appreciation, the look of shock and confusion on his face was obvious, even if he was trying to stifle it.

Drinking it later – after his pulse had settled – we could only muster a few sips before our gag reflexes kicked in. Nothing could save this horrible wine, we thought, and dumped it down the drain.

Luckily Mateus themselves saw room for improvement so they pulled out all the stops here, giving it…an improved bottle design and a screw cap.

Oh.

So what has happened? The firm has decided that it will now be available *only* with a screw cap in the UK (good for those moments when you find yourself in the middle of London Fields without a corkscrew or, if you’re the sort, brown-bagging it at 8:30am on Upper Street).

And now there is also a pink hue to the bottle instead of the traditional brown, a colour reminiscent of the 1970s and Sunday roasts accompanied with ghastly pink wine. Oh, and the motif on the label has been modernised as well – not that anyone ever knew or noticed what was.

This amazing curious news reminded me of Bollinger’s announcement last week that it had changed the shape of its 750ml bottle across almost its entire range to one with a narrower neck and a wider base. This was to make it behave more like a magnum and, therefore, give better cellaring potential for the contents. That, my friends, is the sort of thing I want to hear.

The upside of Bollinger’s decision to use a design that dates from 1846 is to slow down the oxygen exchange in the bottle is that not only does good things to an already great wine (yes that’s my bias coming out), but it is dead sexy as well. As though I didn’t already need a reason to buy it.

What to match with a carbonara? Champers perhaps…

LAST WEEK MY fellow blogger Simoney Girard taught the readers of Ella Mag how to cook a generally kick-ass spaghetti carbonara. I’ve not tried it, but judging by the confections she’s brought into the office over the years I’d say chances are good it is more heartwarming than meeting your first-born child for the first time.

Not that I’ve ever had kids or anything like that (that would require having a girlfriend, of course).

Anyway. Back to this carbonara.

I’m told this dish is nothing like the creamy carbonaras we know in the UK. No. This was something more genuine, a traditional version that can be traced back to Napoli, Italy. And before you tell me there is no way a woman named Simoney could possibly be from Napoli, let me tell you you’re right – she got the recipe from her Neapolitan friend.

So there. Except for this recipe mushrooms and pine nuts have been added to suit Ms Girard’s preference. So perhaps it’s not as traditional as I have claimed. But let’s not let that detail get in the way of greatness.

Containing salty pancetta, onion, egg, a hint of garlic, some parsley and either parmesan or pecorino, there are some great flavours working here. This isn’t a deep, brooding, beefy tomato sauce, but it’s rich in that it has the pancetta and the cheese and is light because no single element overpowers it. Therefore, this doesn’t need a wine whose sole purpose is to blast through strong flavours with tannins that could knock out a buzzard.

What comes to mind here is a white or red wine that travels down the middle of the road, having enough heft to take on the pancetta and cheese as well as some decent acidity to knock through the flavours, but not too much.

Champagne

Believe it or not, the acidity and heft of Champagne (or another decent sparkling wine, for that matter) could make a great match for this meal. With pancetta, garlic and cheese all in here, you need something that will cut through those flavours and not fall apart in the process.

Oudinot Vintage 2004 Champagne (Marks & Spencer, £29)
I recently cracked one of these for a friend’s birthday and found it to have great structure. Yeasty, brioche nose, apples and citrus aromas and flavours. This is rich and biscuity, making it a great bargain for vintage bubbly and maybe even a good match for carbonara.

Oudinot Rosé Medium Dry non-vintage (Marks & Spencer, £25)
Why not go for a rosé? This will have brioche, peaches and cream but in a slightly sweeter style than the vintage above.

If you want Champagne on a budget, consider Waitrose Brut Non-vintage Champagne, (Waitrose, £18.99)

White wines

I could recommend some Italian whites, such as a dry, acidic pinot grigio, but I’m not going to. Why? Because I think a something else would work well here. You want something with acidity to stand up to all the ingredients and a good riesling will do that.

Petaluma Riesling 2011 Hanlin Hill, Clare Valley, Australia (Waitrose, £10.44)
Dry, acidic and having notes of citrus and lime, this is a solid riesling with enough fruit character to be enjoyable and the backbone to handle a carbonara.

Red wines

Château de Chénas 2009 Moulin-à-Vent, Beaujolais, Burgundy, France (Waitrose, £10.44)
The great thing about Beaujolais is that it isn’t a heavy wine, so when you need to pair a red with something more delicate like fish it can make a great choice. Fruity and acidic, this can stand up to the sweet and salty flavours of black cod. With Beaujolais you want to choose something from at least the ‘villages’ level, but preferably from the ‘cru’ level like Moulin-a-Vent.

This blog also appeared in Ella Mag as part of my wine of the week series.

Photo: Gameanna