Not a drop worth drinking

wpid-dsc_0565.jpgIt is often said that wine drinkers these days are spoiled with choice, but surely the people who say such things have never ventured into a typical supermarket. The shelves may be heaving with wine, but how much of it do you actually want to drink?

Worse, still, if you have your mind set on buying something specific. Not esoteric, mind you. Just…specific. No problem if you are seeking pinot grigio, a generic bottle of Rioja or a a generic Kiwi sauvignon blanc. But think twice if you set off with anything particular in mind.

This was all brought into sharp focus this week as I set off on a shopping trip to buy one type of wine from as many retailers as possible. The wine in question? Muscadet.

Now, Muscadet has never really been considered a fashionable wine. Not like Chablis, which is synonymous with the 1980s. Nor pinot noir, which more or less had a starring role in a film. But with more and more wine drinkers, critics and sommeliers seeking greater value for money and food-friendliness, you’d be forgiven for thinking Muscadet would be among those in high demand.

Certainly, I am not alone in my thinking that the wine retailers would be awash with stuff. Rather than spend good money on premier cru Chablis, the masses would rather opt for a better value Muscadet sur lie, I concluded. And so it was on this basis that I set off in search of fine examples of this wine that would form the basis of a blind tasting for an upcoming blog. There would be one each from some major high street retailers, as well as from independent merchants. The premise behind the experiment? To see if what the big name Goliaths sell can come close to matching the quality of the small and nimble Davids.

The shopping trip started off with success. The nearest independent, Amathus in Leadenhall Market, came through with a bottle of Domaine du Haut-Banchereau Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie 2013 for £7.95.

This would set the price target. Can the big retailers deliver a better wine for the same price? Well. The concept was sound. The shopping trip was not.

The Tesco local to my office near the Bank of England had only the cheapest form of Muscadet available, from its lowly “Simply” range for £4.49. This would not suffice.

It was even worse at the Waitrose around the corner. Plenty of pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and Californian rosé. But no Muscadet.

And what of Sainsbury’s? Well, Sainsbury’s was no better.

To their credit, when I tweeted about the City of London’s Muscadet drought, both Tesco and Sainsbury’s did their utmost to find out where it was hiding. Waitrose was unusually silent on the issue, but this is probably because their time is being monopolised by complaints about mouldy cherry tomatoes and conference pears from the middle classes.

So, after round one of the great Muscadet challenge but before a single bottle has been opened, the score is independent merchants 1, major retailers 0.

 

 

 

Tasted: My highlights from the Gerard Bertrand portfolio

wpid-dsc_0445.jpg

Gerard Bertrand is a winemaker that is in many ways the exception to the rule. As a fairly large producer, you would probably expect the wines to be good but not exciting. But this is not the case at all. Instead, high quality seems to be present at all levels. Gerard Bertrand’s affordable wines punch above their weight, while the premium wines tend to hit all the right notes, showing none of the negative qualities that wines from other large outfits often produce.

At the heart of the organisation is Gerard Bertrand himself, an almost unfathomably tall man who has a soft handshake and a youthful charm. And even though the wine business he runs is modern, efficient and has grown to contain some nine individual estates, he is no industrial magnate. He speaks of the tradition of winemaking, the importance of terroir and his love of the Mediterranean lifestyle and the gastronomic traditions that go with it.

wpid-dsc_0449.jpgIn my previous post, I recalled my visit to Gerard Bertrand’s Chateau l’Hospitalet in December. The weather at the time was wet, blustery and cold. But none of that mattered because there was plenty of wine for us to taste. And it was the good stuff, too.

After tasting 15 wines in one sitting, I was impressed by the high level of quality. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy any one of them if I found them on a merchant’s shelf, although I would by lying if I said I didn’t prefer some over others.

So, without further ago, here is what I made of the wines. My preferred wines are marked with an asterisk.

Domaine de Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2012 Rose
A blend of merlot, syrah and caladoc. Salmon pink with a copper hue. Hints of strawberries and cream with a meaty aroma over top. In the mouth it had medium acidity and was dry with a bit of roundness. In style it seemed more like a white wine than a typical rose.

*Chateau de Villemajou Grand Vin AOP Corbieres 2013 Blanc
Blend of marsanne, roussanne and vermentino. Barrel fermented. Lemon green in colour. Plenty of lemon and citrus on the nose with peaches, apricots, as well as a creamy oaky/vanilla note. On the palate this is rich and rounded, with citrus and wet stones, along with peaches and apricots. It has medium acidity and a long finish.

Aigle Royal Chardonnay AOP Limoux 2013 Blanc
100% chardonnay, medium lemon/green in colour. This is an oaky wine with a prominent chardonnay nose that exhibits fresh vanilla and stone fruits. It also has a fruitcake quality that comes through. On the palate it is rounded and oaky, with a mineral quality to it. It has medium acidity and a long finish.

Domaine de Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2013 Blanc
Blend of chardonnay, viognier and sauvignon blanc. Medium lemon colour. On the nose, this had a fruity nose that expressed lemon and citrus fruits as well as lychees and grass, and clearly allowed its sauvignon blanc and viognier to come through. On the palate it was fruity but still restrained, showing plenty of citrus with medium acidity and a long finish.

Domaine de l’Aigle IGP Haute Vallee de l’Aude 2012
100% pinot noir. This had a spicy nose that expressed vegetal characteristics and a blast of seabreeze. It seemed fairly closed, but there were hints of vanilla. Still clearly in development, it had medium tanning and red berry fruits, as well as medium acidity. This is a fairly basic pinot noir that needed a bit more time to show its true colours.

Aigle Royal Pinot Noir IGP Haute Vallee de l’Aude 2012
100% pinot noir. This is a step up from the previous pinot, with an expressive nose of vanilla, red fruits and spices. On the palate it had an enjoyable dose of brambly red fruits, medium acidity and tannins, and a medium to long finish. Still in need of development, this wine gave me the impression that it would turn into something great with a little but more time.

Chateau la Sauvageonne Grand Vin AOP Coreaux du Languedoc Terrasses du Larzac 2012
Blend of syrah, grenache and carignan. Deep rub red in colour, with deep aromas of black fruits, boiled sweets, spices and garrigue. On the palate it showed more black fruits, plenty of spice and medium tannin. This was extremely pleasant and deep, and would benefit from more time in bottle.

Chateau de Villemajou Grand Vin AOP Corbieres Boutenac 2012
Blend of carignan, syrah and grenache. Deep ruby red, with an immediately recognisable Corbieres nose: meaty and with barnyard aromas. This was warm and earthy, with garrigue and something floral, perhaps violets. On the palate it showed sweets, dark fruits and medium tannin. This is a very good Corbieres.

*Chateau l’Hospitalet Grand Vin AOP Coteaux du Languedoc La Clape 2012
Blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre. Deep in colour with plenty of dark fruits and a hint of oak on the palate. This was complex and enjoyable in a hedonistic way. Aromas of olives, herbs, spices and truffles abounded, as well as something that I can only describe as the warmth of the region. On the palate it was rich and warm again, showing more dark fruits and olives with a saline aspect to it, with medium tannins and a long finish. This will likely develop with time in bottle.

*Domaine de Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2012
Blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, grenache, caladoc and carignan. This might have been the best wine of the tasting, which is why I bought a bottle to take home with me when I visited the vineyard’s shop before I left. This is deep purple in colour with a spicy nose that expresses dark fruits, racy oak and once again that sense of warmth. On the palate it has yet more dark fruits, medium tannins and a very fresh feel while also being rich and warm.

Tautavel Hommage aux Vignerons AOP Cotes de Roussillon Villages 2011
100% grenache. This had a very typically grenache nose that expressed gum candies, ripe olives and truffles. In the mouth this is rich and viscous, with mild to medium tannins and a soft feel. It had plenty of dark cherries and berries, but a bit of a flat finish. It is well made, but perhaps wasn’t hitting the right notes on the day.

*Le Viala AOP Minervois La Liviniere 2012
Blend of grenache, carignan and syrah. Deep purple in colour, with a gamey/barnyard nose. Very much an enjoyable Minervois, offering up aromas of spice, dark fruits and pepper. In the mouth this was all about dark fruits, with medium acidity, medium tannins and a long, lingering finish. This was among my favourites on the day.

*Le Viala AOP Minervois La Liviniere 2001
Blend of grenache, carignan and syrah. With 13 years of age at the time of tasting, this was deep ruby in colour with some bricking at the edge. The nose was dominated by mushroom/truffle aromas along with dark olives, bruised dark fruits, violets, chocolate, pipe tobacco and marmalade. In the mouth it showed warm dark fruits, more spice and wonderful complexity, along with medium tannins and a long finish. Very likely my favourite wine of the day.

La Forge AOP Corbieres Boutenac 2012
Blend of carignan and syrah. Deep ruby with a fairly closed nose that hinted at dark fruits and vegetal aromas. The palate was much more expressive, with flavours of soft dark fruits and boiled sweets, with medium acidity and a long finish. This wasn’t showing all of its qualities but will likely develop into something great with time.

La Forge AOP Corbieres Boutenac 2004
Blend of carignan and syrah. Ruby red with a bit of bricking at the edge. On the nose it had aromas of mushrooms, spices and black fruits. There was also the same theme of warmth that many of Bertrand’s wines show, as well as olives, peppers and floral aromas. On the palate it had integrated tannins and an obvious maturity, having had 10 years to develop. There was more black fruits with boiled sweets and fruit gums. A good wine.

A weekend at Chateau l’Hospitalet

wpid-wp-1421787739664.jpeg

Truth be told, I hadn’t realised that there was such thing as a pruning festival. But when the invitation appeared in my inbox, I wasn’t going to question. It was one that I couldn’t resist.

And so I found myself on a flight to Montpellier, France, in early December, set for a drive towards the La Clape appellation and, specifically, Gerard Bertrand’s Chateau l’Hospitalet near Narbonne. I had been there just a few months before. I knew the way. I knew what to expect. Except, of course, that back in August the weather was warm, even when it was raining. I hadn’t quite anticipated just how warm it wouldn’t be this time around.

When I landed, it was raining. And the opposite of warm. A punishing wind was blowing from the northwest and the rain came down in sheets. I regretted not packing a warm coat. Or even a jumper. All I had was a rain shell, a fleece and a Helly Hansen baselayer. My only hope was that we wouldn’t spend much time outside.

After a pleasant night of beef and wine in the Chateau l’Hospitalet restaurant and a solid sleep in my room, I woke the next morning to do what any sensible man would do prior to what was surely going to be a long day of tasting wine and gorging on food. I went for a run through the vineyards. Wearing shorts and a T-shirt. This would have been fine had it not been a) colder than a Siberian deep-freeze and b) blowing a gale that was as sharp as a Gillette razor.

At 11 a.m. we had our first wine tasting and 15 glasses of wine stood before me.

wpid-dsc_0445.jpg
The list of wines was an extensive tasting of some of Bertrand’s best vineyards and cuvees:

  • Domaine de Cigalus
  • Chateau de Villemajou
  • Domaine de l’Aigle
  • Chateau La Sauvageonne
  • Chateau l’Hospitalet
  • Tautavel Hommage aux Vignerons
  • Le Viala
  • La Forge

In another post I will list each of the wines tasted along with my notes and verdict on each one. For now I will just say that the quality level, as always, was high and all of the wines were well made and worthy of attention. Particular favourites included Cigalus, l’Hospitalet and Le Viala.

I would like to say that we spent the afternoon indoors savouring these wines in the cosseting warmth of the chateau. However, our hosts felt that it would be much more memorable for us to spend as much of our day outside as possible given that the wind had picked up, the driving rain had set in and the temperature appeared to have plunged to a level I wouldn’t have expected in southern France.

And this is how I found myself walking head first into a bracing wind and sideways rain, following a labradoodle through a grove of white oak trees as it sniffed around for truffles. I kid you not.

Surprisingly, we the dogs did, indeed, sniff out a few truffles (the proprietor could have showed me a lump of mud and I would have nodded my approval), and we, the people merrily following those dogs, did shiver and complain about the wind within our warm coats, rain jackets, gloves and hats. All the while, the dogs’ handlers looked entirely comfortable and unbothered by the weather without the assistance of any gloves or hats or what I would have considered warm clothing for the conditions.

And then we saw a mule. This, as it happens, was the pruning element in Pruning Festival. And we did prune, albeit for only a few moments until our hands were too cold to squeeze the clippers.

wpid-dsc_0456.jpg

Again, the mule’s handler was ungloved and unhatted, yet unperturbed by the chill. How do they do it?

At this point, our group was beginning to lose its nerve, diminishing by ones and twos as the punters gave up and headed back to the chateau. We were drawn by the warmth and the wine, and the promise of a dinner heavily laden in truffles.

Next time, I’ll tell you about the wine.

Winter reading: Sediment — a wine book for the rest of us

51Bgtb7y7gL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Despite having made my profession as a writer of various persuasions for most of the past decade, my reading list has been shamefully thin on the ground. Finding time to read seems to be more difficult and less appealing than ever, particularly when the other option is to vegetate on the sofa while watching reruns on Netflix.

This time six years ago I somehow managed to devote a worrying amount of time to reading Robert Parker’s Bordeaux cover to cover. That tome, all 1,200 or so pages of it, took a year to read at a pace that was, to be honest, as good as a few pages here and there until I’d had enough of Parker’s constant use of the phrases ‘blockbuster’ and ‘sleeper of the vintage’. Informative as it was, it was also an excellent sleep aid.

Since then I have somehow managed to read several other dry books on wine, but as the years have passed by, my ability to complete them — or even make it more than a few pages in — has diminished. I never did managed to read the entirely of the World Atlas of Wine, informative and valuable as it may be. But I do like to refer to the maps on occasion.

No matter what I read, a book needs to give me a reason to keep reading it. If it fails to grab my attention, to entertain me, to pull me into its narrative and hold me there until the final page, I can put it down and quickly forget about it. Some books I read quickly; other books will remain in limbo for several years as I dip in and out of their pages when I can be bothered to think of them. This is why I never did finish the Mayor of Casterbridge. I read Far From the Madding Crowd many years ago when I still had the patience, whereas the Mayor of Casterbridge tested my patience one too many times.

Wine books are no different from any other. They either pull me in or they push me away. I sincerely doubt I would have the patience to read another of Parker’s imposing reference books, for example. But give me something with a story to tell, a dash of wit and humour, and we’re in business.

This is the case for the only wine book I have managed to read in its entirety in the past year was Sediment: Two Gentlemen and Their Mid-Life Terroirs.

As I have also written for 12×75.com, this is a wine book that raises topics and views that are seldom seen among the wine press. It speaks to several audiences at once, from the everyday wine drinker who simply wants to know whether or not they should attempt to drink wine out of a box, to the sophisticated collector who has a sense of humour. While the book is based largely on posts that have appeared in the blog, the adaptation works because few of us have probably read all of their previous posts. There are times when a compendium is a good thing.

I devoured this book in a couple short sittings. In other words, on the seats of two discount airlines in early December. What would normally have been an uncomfortable hour and a half being flogged duty-free products and scratch cards by bedraggled flight attendants, I simply zoned them out and buried my head into the world of CJ and PK.

Sediment explores with humour and humility the minefield that is buying and drinking (and less frequently investing in) wine, whether it is bought in bulk from a co-operative in the south of France, a Germany discount retailer on the UK high street or from a merchant in St James’s Street in London.

Sediment: Two Gentlemen And Their Mid-Life Terroirs
By Charles Jennings and Paul Keers
John Blake Publishing
£12.99

A case of…three? Tussock Jumper Wines

wpid-dsc_0306.jpgFor years, buying wine has been simple. You can buy it as a single bottle or in cases of six or 12. This concept is so simple that an entire UK-wide retail chain, Majestic Wine Warehouse, felt there was no need to sell wine in quantities less than a full case. So they set their minimum at 12. Perhaps this was because their founders believed people would be mad if they didn’t buy them by the dozen.

For decades, anyone walking out of a wine warehouse across the UK did so with a battered Oyster Bay box under their arm, broadcasting to passers-by that they, quite possibly, have a drinking problem.

Now we have this. Tussock Jumper Wines. Sold exclusively through Amazon in boxes of three. Three? Not by the dozen, not by the six and not by the one. But three. This wasn’t dreamed up by a genius of wine retail but instead a genius of internet sales. This is a wine brand with global ambitions, but it’s also a wine brand without a proper home in the UK. Already popular in the Ukraine (its largest market) and Russia, Tussock Jumper lacked a major British distribution channel. In other words, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and everyone else said thanks, but no thanks.

Enter Amazon. We already buy our books, DVDs, electronics and Bosch electric corkscrews on Amazon, so why not wine? As it happens, the boxes of three are not the product of marketing genius but rather out of logistical necessity. Presumably the folks working in the vast Amazon warehouse in Rugeley aren’t yet proficient at counting up to 12 or even six, but they are just fine with three.

So anyway, back to the wine. A month or two ago I received samples of two Tussock Jumper wines, the Argentinian malbec and the South African chenin blanc. The positive is that there was an obvious attempt at quality behind them. The negative is the branding. This wine stands out for one reason and one reason only — its critter label.

Now, it’s safe to say I have a history of castigating critter-label wines. Cute many of them may be, you would have no more success selecting a decent wine by opting for the one with vermin on the label than if you threw rocks at a dozen bottles and drank the one that didn’t break. They are, as I’ve said elsewhere, a mortal sin in wine branding from my perspective.

Many wine brands are developed slowly over time, building on the reputation of a family estate, their place of origin and the skill of the winemaker. With Tussock Jumper, which is a winery that buys its grapes from wherever it can find them, there is no famous domaine, no specific place of origin, no family history to anchor them in the annals of winemaking history. The name itself is a play on words but could be lost on many. What exactly is a tussock jumper anyway? Presumably it refers to critters jumping over tussocks of grass as well as the red jumpers on the label, but I would be surprised if the average person on the street got it in one.

What is the verdict on the wine? In both cases I was mildly surprised. My assumption was that these would be all looks and no substance, their heavy bottles containing liquids displaying notes of battery acid and manure, and little else. But in fact they are perfectly serviceable wines.

The malbec had plenty of fruit on the nose, showing blackberries and brambles with spice and pepper, albeit in a one-dimensional manner that lacked real complexity. On the palate, it was fairly basic at first, tasting like a generic red with a dusty side that presumably came from its oak treatment. Not profound, but not bad either.

The chenin blanc, meanwhile, was a surprise. On the nose were melons, grass, cucumber, stone fruits and wet stones. On the palate it was fruity and dry, with more stone fruits and melon, but again it wasn’t overly complex. I was expecting something flabby and reminiscent of cheap jug wine, but it wasn’t like that at all. Not profound, but again, not bad.

There is just one problem. At £8.99 per bottle, Tussock Jumper has been priced to compete with a vast lake of wine in supermarkets and independent merchants across the land. While I wouldn’t hesitate to order a case of truly fine wine online, I haven’t yet reached that point in life when I want to buy all my wine that way, particularly the everyday stuff selling for £9 or less.

And if it’s yet another big brand wine bottled in the millions, you can be certain I won’t be buying it in threes.

Tesco Vintage Claret: You couldn’t pay me to drink it

Swpid-dsc_0378.jpgo it seems bloggers across the UK’s interweb have landed themselves in hot water for taking cash bungs in exchange for promoting products to their loyal followers. Sure, it seems innocent on the face of it. A glowing endorsement for Oreos here, a plug for cosmetics there. All fine and dandy were it not for the fact that the bloggers were willing participants in a sophisticated advertising campaign, handing over their credibility in exchange for a small cash sum.

Wine bloggers and professional wine writers alike receive a great deal of sample bottles, but seldom do they come with strings attached. An envelope of cash to ensure a positive review? It would set Twitter alight.

Of course, in the wine world the forces of supply and demand play a role in preventing the sort of unscrupulous promotional activity that the Oreo biscuit people embarked upon. Simply put, the truly fine wines have no need for such low-brow marketing activities, while the large, generic wine brands (those named after shoeless appendages and water falling over a cliff) wouldn’t be fooling anyone if suddenly a wave of bloggers sung their praises.

Besides, you couldn’t pay me to drink most of this stuff. Take, for example, anything found in the lower reaches of the Tesco wine aisle. For there, wallowing down near your shins, hiding beneath the shelf in the blur of your peripheral vision, are bottles of wine that, if they could talk, might go some way to explaining why Tesco has found itself in so much trouble lately.

Tesco’s Vintage Claret 2013 stares up from that bottom shelf with all the promise and potential that any serious tight wine drinker would expect. But this isn’t made in the image of Berry Bros Good Ordinary Claret, which for £9 a bottle is actually good and could be passed off as something much more expensive when served alongside dinner with the in-laws.

For £4.99, this wine almost spites you for paying £4.01 less for the bottle. It has a nose reminiscent of halitosis. It tastes of bruise plums mixed with rough vodka. And the combination of the wine’s acidity and unexpected tannic finish gives you the impression that as you swallow, your gums are being stripped out of your jaw.

Yes, it is not yet December 31, but I feel confident in saying that this is the worst wine I will drink this year. Even with the Christmas party season still to be endured, it is unlikely that anything else could match this bottle’s character, which can only be described as sheer disdain for the pleasure that is drinking wine.

It does have one positive, though: its finish is mercifully short. The entire experience is over almost as soon as it began.

But it’s not all bad down there on the bottom four shelves. Earlier this year, I wrote about Les Dauphins Cotes du Rhone Villages, describing it as being:

Nothing wrong with it…if you don’t mind red wine that is watery, lacking in any real flavour and encourages you to rinse out your mouth with drain cleaner.

On another one of those occasions when I was trawling the lower reaches of Tesco’s desperate wine section, wondering what the local wine merchant would think if he caught me in the act, I spotted a familiar and potentially stomach-churning.

Les Dauphins.wpid-dsc_0347.jpg

But this wasn’t the rough village version that nearly cleared the room. This wasn’t the usually Les Dauphins Cotes due Rhone Villages  that cost me £6.49 at the time.

This was Les Dauphins Cote du Rhone Reserve.

Having only just managed to smooth over relations with my girlfriend after the fiasco that was Le Dauphins round one, I was tempting fate with this one. And at £5.75 on sale, there was a good chance that it would turn out to be truly awful. Could that be possible? Well there was only one way to find out, I thought.

On the sniff, the thing that caught my attention was that it didn’t make me recoil. Spices, not white spirits, I thought. It was light, but not lighter fluid. Obviously a Cotes du Rhone, with suggestions of pepper, garrigue and red fruits. Not overly complex, but how much complexity comes in a bottle of wine costing less than £6? At this price, the measure of success is whether or not I am willing to pour another glass. Unlike the Vintage Claret, I could actually drink this without doing permanent damage to my digestive system. For the price of a pub sandwich, you’re at least getting fair value for money.

But still, you couldn’t pay me to drink it.