We search in vain for a message on the bottle

The uselessness of wine labels.

This week’s column seemed so simple: just me, a fastapproaching deadline and a list of complaints about wine labels. I’ve moaned for years about the refusal of the French to tell me anything I might want to know on their bottles.
 
It’s like someone who’s introducing himself shrugging contemptuously and walking off after being asked what he does for a living. No grape names, no regional information – none that a novice could understand, anyway. A vintage, an appellation d’origine contrôlée (don’t know what that is? Tough) and probably an owner’s name, but no indication of whether that owner has been dead for 200 years and his inheritors have been bought out by a conglomerate.
 
Often, there is just one label. The French may have a word for the back label – une contre étiquette – but, as we have established, naming things is neither here nor there. Even when there is a second label, it usually has a lot of guff about expressing the authenticity of terroir and respecting nature. “Each year, our recompense is the harvest,” claims the back of my 2002 Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus. Maybe. That bottle is worth £75. Winemakers are legally obliged to tell you when their wine contains sulphites. These hugely useful words are the only English on the label, apart from “Produce of France”. 
 
But let’s not limit ourselves to picking on the French. My 2004 Sassicaia tells me neither the owner of the vineyard nor that this wine was one of the first of the so-called Super Tuscans that made this part of Italy nearly as dribbled over by high-end wine lovers as Bordeaux. (Sassicaia contains two of the same grapes as Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. No, you won’t get that from the label.) The back of the bottle is disturbed only by a label that tells me it “contains sulphites”, in 20 languages. Of all the things I’d like to learn from the outside of a bottle of great wine, how to convey in Magyar that someone has added a preservative is pretty low down the list.
 
It is the New World that has changed this. The Penfolds Magill Estate gives so much information about the handpicked grapes, vineyard, fermentation process and need for decanting that I could probably make a bottle myself. Better yet, with a wine called 2000 Magill Estate Shiraz, it’s not much of a mystery which grapes have been used.
 
“What is wrong with the Europeans?” I wondered, as I examined a bottle of Bolney Estate rosé at its Sussex winery, searching in vain for enlightenment about what I’d be consuming if I chose to drink it. If I buy a top, the label tells me about the materials – and none of my outfits has yet entered my digestive system. A marketing failure of this kind won’t make Bolney’s wines taste as good as top Burgundy or Sassicaia – or Magill Estate, come to that. You’re supposed to copy the innovators, not the old farts. It’s called progress.
 
The reason why this column is not the simple matter it was supposed to be is that, while researching it, I discovered that some labels are not marketing failures at all, even if they are the luxury-goods equivalent of an information blackout. Back in the 1940s, Château Mouton Rothschild began asking artists to decorate its bottles and the practice continues: the list includes Jean Cocteau, Andy Warhol and Marc Chagall. You don’t want to cloud up a Chagall with words and you probably want to buy it, if you can afford it, whatever it’s on.
 
There have been wine labels for more than 3,000 years and most have not catered to the literalist whims of wine populists. Many have been worse than reticent: Bordeaux used to be known for selling a lot more wine than it produced and, as recent forgery scandals demonstrate, Appellation Outright Porky is still flying off the shelves. Nonetheless, I believe that experimental winebuying should be encouraged. And a little basic information, handily situated, would surely harm the punter a lot less than any number of sulphites.
 
Next week: Ruth Padel on nature
Ignorance isn't bliss; winemakers should take a less laid-back approach to keeping us informed. Photograph: Joss McKinley/Gallery Stock.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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My quest for an elusive can of juicy Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie ends with a Dolmio pasta sauce

In Tesco, I was struck by the presence of a paella ready-meal in the chiller cabinet.

The last time I addressed you from my bully-beef pulpit I was going to write about my all-consuming yen for a Fray Bentos individual steak and kidney pie, but as there wasn’t one to hand to mouth, I related the electronic cigarette incident at Pizza Express instead. This week, I can report that I have attempted to secure one of the meatylicious treats – and once again failed.

Mr Vairavar, who keeps the convenience store immediately beneath my flat, did have a Fray Bentos minced beef and onion pie on his shelves (and very attractively priced it was, too, at £1.99) but I knew that it wouldn’t hit the suety spot. I had already undertaken a smallish tour of supermarkets in the environs, and although I hadn’t secured the elusive pudding I still found plenty of food for thought.

In Tesco, I was struck by the presence of a paella ready-meal in the chiller cabinet. All convenience foods rely not on a specific ingredient, but rather on its absence: time has been left out, usually in favour of some artificial flavouring. I think of paella as a dish to be
prepared over hours, possibly an entire day. Cooked in the warm south, beneath the canopy of a leafy bower and before an azure sea – coaxed into full and piquant fruition by some adipose and moustachioed duenna, while almond-eyed kiddies dangle from her skirts and the menfolk sit around drinking harsh Rioja, smoking black tobacco and spitting.

Mind you, human ingenuity has been diminishing the temporal component of our cuisine for a long time now: in the Middle Ages salt was the preferred preservative, but by the 1900s tinned meat was being despatched from Fray Bentos in Uruguay and making the long voyage to dock in the British duodenum.

Also on Tesco’s shelves was an extensive selection of pasta sauces. All the usual suspects were there, including Loyd Grossman’s and several variations on the Dolmio theme. It had been a bad week for the Dolmio brand, what with Mars Food, which owns it, feeling it was incumbent on it to place a label on these sauces (and its other products) warning punters that they aren’t “everyday” foods but should be eaten only “occasionally” – say, once a week.

I stood in the aisle, my dreams macerated at my feet. Not eat a Dolmio pasta sauce every day of the week (and even twice daily)? What kind of freshly preserved, heavily sugared and salted hell was this? I have clung on for years to a vision of the good life, summed up for me by Dolmio pasta sauce adverts of the early 1990s, in which a tumultuously happy extended Neapolitan family chows down at a long table laid out under the spreading boughs of an olive tree: old crones and rosy-cheeked bambini, voluptuous girls and their blushing beaus, the entire assembly benignly surveyed by a greying paterfamilias, a role I reserved (don’t laugh) for myself.

True, I can actually count the number of times that I have eaten Dolmio pasta sauces on the fingers of one leprous hand, but as with most commodity fetishism – contra Marx – it’s the thought that counts. So, I bought a jar of Dolmio sauce and bore it home as a sort of edible time capsule; if it isn’t an “everyday” food, I reasoned, I could wait for the Apocalypse to crack off the lid.

I considered buying a jar of Loyd Grossman sauce as well. I’ve no idea if it’s any good but I met Grossman once, in his capacity as chairman of English Heritage’s blue plaque committee. He’d invited me to unveil the plaque for the short story writer H H Munro (whose nom de plume was Saki), which was to be sited on a property on Mortimer Street, London, now tenanted by a firm of accountants.

A scaffold had been put up outside so that the plaque could be mounted, but Loyd and I still had to crawl over one of the partners’ desks in order to reach it. I found him to be a warm and genuine man with no side at all – only a bottom, with which I was nose-to-tail during the desk-clambering. So, that’s the problem I have with his pasta sauces: instead of associating them with joyful consanguinity, I think of systematic pederasty. (Not, I hasten to add, because of Loyd Grossman’s bottom but because Saki had these proclivities and, according to his biographer, whom I met the same day, the writer kept a scrupulous menu of his conquests, including details of their, um, portion size.)

The next stop was Lidl – always a bizarre experience. The last branch of Lidl I’d visited was situated exactly on the death strip of the old Berlin Wall and surrounded by silver birches that looked to be precisely 25 years old. It was sheer foolishness to expect this outlet to have one of the elusive Fray Bentos individual steak and kidney puddings – its stock is discounted stuff that it has picked up cheap.

Fun fact: founded in 1930, Lidl was originally called Schwarz Foods but being referred to as “Schwarzmarkt” would have been a bit of a liability, especially once war was declared, and so the name was changed. There were no black-market puddings here but almost an entire aisle stacked with serrano hams! I would have bought one of these time-infused meats . . . but I had my Dolmio end-of-the-world to look forward to.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism