Sticker shock: Worthy pinot noir for less than £20

wpid-dsc_0662.jpgFinding decent pinot noir for a decent price has become a nearly impossible quest that is akin to finding an affordable apartment in central London that isn’t simply a converted attic with a camp stove in the corner.

Pinot noir is one of those wines that can stop you in your tracks when you taste it. At its best, it is complex and profound, causing you to take more time to enjoy layer upon layer of flavour. At its worst, it can prompt your gag reflex.

Notoriously difficult to get right, pinot noir isn’t one of those wines that can be made in large volumes successfully. Thin-skinned, prone to rot and demanding care and attention throughout the growing season and in the winery, this is a wine that you don’t want to buy from Romania for £2 a bottle. And despite what some people might say, you probably don’t want anything from New Zealand’s Marlborough region for less than £10 a bottle these days either. Note that in California, the volume producers have steered clear of pinot noir for the most part. While Charles Shaw — AKA Two Buck Chuck — can pull off cheap chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, among other varietal wines, they stopped short of jumping on the pinot noir bandwagon. That was a wise decision.

Where, then, do we find affordable, drinkable pinot noir? New Zealand’s Marlborough region is increasingly turning out impressive examples.

While Central Otago to the south and Martinborough to the north are coveted for the quality of their pinot, the price can often be a bit of a shocker. Marlborough, perhaps best known for its unique style of sauvignon blanc, has been producing pinot noir for quite some time. Even though they tend to be cheaper than those from Otago, they can be frustratingly acidic, one-dimensional and unappetising. Think Brancott, Oyster Bay and any other supermarket brand for that matter.

There are some great examples of Marlborough pinot, however. The likes of Dog Point and Cloudy Bay, and the better offerings from Seresin, all produce fine pinots but their per-bottle prices are north of £20 and are often closer to £30. Pegasus Bay, in the Canterbury region, also makes a great pinot noir, but again the price is around £25 per bottle.

The question is, can we find an enjoyable pinot noir with layers of complexity with a price somewhere between the forgettable supermarket brands and top-end juggernauts? I think we might.

For several months I have been visiting the Leadenhall Market location of Amathus Drinks and eyeing up its selection of wines from Marlborough’s Domaine Georges Michel with curiosity and suspicion. Curious, because it is a producer unknown to me. Suspicious, because little has been written about them in the UK.

Further suspicion comes from the price. The company’s mid-range pinot noir, Domaine Georges Michel La Reserve Pinot Noir 2010, is listed at £22.51 per bottle on the Amathus website, placing it firmly in the more expensive category of Kiwi pinot. But in the shop it is selling for £16.85. While not cheap for the everyday wine drinker on the street, if it’s good, it could be a steal.

On first pour, the wine is pale but not watery, with complex aromas of cherries, plums, currants, mushrooms, oak, brambly fruits and savoury, earthy notes. On the palate it has that classic smoothness of a well-made Kiwi pinot, with a dash of muscle while also having a great deal of French-influenced finesse. Plenty of cherries and fruit backed by more layers of savoury notes and smooth tannins. At five years old, this wine has benefited from some bottle age and is clearly made in a more Burgundian style but clearly has New Zealand as its origin.

For the price, this wine outclasses many that have cost twice as much (Cuvaison from California coming immediately to mind). It might be too early to suggest that it is in the same league as some of its more famous Marlborough neighbours, so let’s hope that the price stays put.

 

On junk science and my (former) dislike of Chilean wine

wpid-dsc_0592.jpgA quick glance at the science section of any major newspaper tells us two things. First, that there is no shortage of academics trying to find the answer to anything and everything in our observable universe. And second, that there seems to be a disproportionate number of scientists devoting countless hours, perhaps even years, to some of life’s least important issues. Almost all of it is junk science with an agenda behind it, and this fact has been reported widely. It seems, for some reason, that the Telegraph is leading the pack when it comes to reports of junk science, perhaps because, in its endeavour to attract the most clicks and therefore higher ad revenues, it must print anything and everything. It comes as no surprise that junk science about wine tasting appears frequently, hashing and then re-hashing the same tired topics. Case in point, this week’s round of wine tasting ‘science’ and ‘research’, as reported by the Telegraph and Harper’s Wine & Spirits. At the Telegraph, we read about how wines with lower alcohol are purported to have more flavour than those with higher alcohol. Sure, insofar as the alcohol isn’t masking the fruit and other aspects that make up the wine’s flavour profile. Then, in Harper’s, we read that Naked Wines, the online retailer, claimed that consumers ‘prefer’ bigger, bolder wines with more alcohol. If consumers want flavour, then surely going for a wine with more alcohol is counter-intuitive? I can only conclude that something doesn’t add up here. I’m going to suggest its the science involved. No matter how deeply scientists study the process of wine tasting, no matter how often they might conclude that there is nothing behind it, they are clearly ignoring the fact that there is, and it’s entirely sensory and subjective. Think of it this way: there are no scientific reviews that I know of that have debunked the science film reviews. Many of the most celebrated films ever made received bad reviews upon release — think Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Casablanca and my personal favourite, The Big Lebowski — but no one has claimed that this was because film reviewing is junk science. Nor does anyone say it when the reviews are overly positive. On the topic of science and subjectivity, let me make a very bad segue and write about Chilean wine. It is no secret that I have an irrational intense dislike of Chilean wine. Mostly, I have found it to represent a vague middle ground in the wine world, a sort of indecisiveness, neither here nor there of flavour and complexity. If, for example, a merlot from St Emilion represents restraint and a sense of place while a merlot from, say, California, has a reputation for being the opposite of restrained, then a Chilean merlot, by and large, will inevitably land somewhere in the middle. And the middle is not where anyone wants to be, for being in the middle really just means that you’re neither this nor that. It’s the beige minivan of wine, offering as much excitement as a night out at the library. Except. Except there could be another way. And I might have found it, in all places, at Marks & Spencer. Look beyond the cashmere scarves and the navy blue blazers with those gaudy gold buttons and head straight for the wine aisle, where the selection is anything but stuffy. Indian sauvignon blanc? Georgian orange wine?  A crisp, white wine from Tikves in Macedonia? Check, check and check. On the Chilean front, the usual suspects make an appearance in the M&S aisles. But what’s this hiding near the bottom of the shelf? A dry pedro ximenez from Chile’s Elqui Valley? Pedro ximenez is a white wine grape best known for growing in southern Spain, where it is turned into a sherry of the same name, often labelled PX for short. PX sherry is dark and sweet, the result of grapes that have been laid out to dry in the sun to intensify their sugar concentration. But with M&X Pedro Ximenez PX, things are rather different. The wine is dry and crisp, not sweet and unctuous. It reminded me more of a wine from the Maconnais region of France, not an oddball white wine made in Chile from an oddball grape. For somewhere in the region of £7, this wasn’t just an acceptable bottle of wine, this was one of the first Chilean wines I’d enjoyed in a long time (a recently tasted bottle of very expensive still wine made in a Champagne style notwithstanding). Now, this isn’t a perfect wine by any means. Its price is in the lower half of the M&S product suite, so it isn’t necessarily profound or complex. It probably won’t cause any epiphanies any time soon. But it’s interesting and satisfying, something few Chilean wines have achieved for me in the past few years. And there’s more. M&S also sells a reasonably priced wine made from Chile’s signature red wine grape, carmenere, and it, too, stopped me in my tracks. M&S CM Carmenere also hails from the Elqui Valley and, while slightly more expensive than the PX, represents good value. I expected it to be fruity and innocuous like a generic merlot might be, but instead it was so much more. Oak, spices, excellent fruit on the palate and a solid backbone all make for a bit of a surprise. So PX and CM. Who knew? Until recently I had avoided Chilean wine out of caution. But perhaps I was wrong all along. What I do know is that it had nothing to do with science.

Wine investment: A worrying state of affairs

IMAG0028Bear with me, the link I am about to make is tenuous. It’s often disappointing when something that you wanted to believe was true turns out to be nothing more than a sham. In the case of the Wizard of Oz, that sham was a wizard who sustained the myth of his powers using smoke and mirrors, shielding his worshippers from the reality that he was just an ordinary man from Omaha who got lost. Thanks to the power of fiction, the wizard effected a happy ending by proving to Dorothy and her friends that the answers they were seeking were always within them.

When it comes to wine investment, there has been no shortage of instances when people wanted to believe something to be true. Rudy Kurniawan is perhaps the most famous recent fraudster, but don’t forget about the case of Labouré-Roi’s fake pinot noir or even the somewhat mythical Thomas Jefferson bottles, documented in the book The Billionaire’s Vinegar.

We need not travel too far to find cases of wine fraud. A daily visit to Jim Budd’s blog keeps us up to date with just about every instance of nefarious activity in the wine investment world, some elaborate and some not.

The latest story that caught my eye was that of opportunists attempting to capitalise on clients of the now-defunct wine investment company European Fine Wines. EFW was a company that many of us wanted to believe was the real deal and free from the troubles associated with other collapsed wine investment firms, but deep down there were plenty of suspicions floating around. This all came to fruition in 2014, when EFW’s phone lines went unanswered and the staff had reportedly been ‘sacked’.

Indeed, once the company went under, it left behind a trail of unhappy former clients and dubious practices. Sadly, they did so right under our noses. On three occasions in 2012 and 2013 it held tasting events where, looking back, it seemed to wish upon itself all the scrutiny and suspicion it could muster. I wrote about the first of these tastings back in May 2012, where the wines lined up on the table consisted of Haut Brion, Cheval Blanc, Yquem and more from the 1998 Bordeaux vintage. The event was peppered with clients and journalists alike, but any scrutiny that was in the air was drowned out by a fog of first growths.

Later that year, the company held a Christmas tasting. The first growths were fewer in number, but the volume of financial journalists attending was uncanny. If they had something to hide, they were doing an unbelievable job of hiding it out in the open.

It was at this tasting that an unhappy client’s story of cold-calling and potential mis-selling (unverified), began to raise my suspicions. What he told me was all too familiar. A slick sales person from EFW  cold called him and sold him a story about the thick profits that could be made by investing in wine and how EFW would handle everything for him. The person on the phone was pushy and persuasive, of course, and managed to part the client and his money with ease. And because this person knew nothing about wine, especially not Bordeaux, EFW sold him second-tier wines from lesser vintages at prices that were very likely unfavourable.

The unhappy customer was angry but realistic. He figured he had been duped, but thankfully didn’t lose a fortune. When he received an invitation to the Christmas tasting, he attended because he wanted to see for himself if the company was legitimate. I gave him my card and told him that if he wanted further help with his situation, I could recommend a few avenues for him to follow. He never did get in touch.

A year later, another tasting invitation landed in my inbox. It was near the end of 2013 and this time there were no journalists present and the wines were all lower-tier. The atmosphere was also much frostier than usual. Something had clearly changed at EFW.  Six months later, the company would be gone. Rather than follow the path of successful and trusted brokerages, companies like EFW seem designed to make quick profits by taking advantage of naive clients by promising fast profits. The problem is that if there is money to be made in wine, it doesn’t come quickly.

In a recent interview with the Telegraph’s Victoria Moore, famed American wine critic Robert Parker said that there is no way to make a quick buck out of wine, adding:

Speculation is one of the ugly down-sides to Bordeaux. I think these speculators have finally, especially the Chinese and some other wealthy people, recognised you can’t make money on them. Now if you’re buying it to sit on it for 10 to 15 years ….but speculators are looking to turn things over.

Truer words were never spoken. We all know the adage; if it seems too good to be true…

Not a drop worth drinking part II: The customer is always right

ID-1009400Harry Gordon Selfridge was famous for his eponymous department store, which transformed the humble act of shopping from an undesirable but necessary evil, to the unnecessary act of frivolity that is the engine of Oxford Street today. Perhaps.

Mr Selfridge has also been credited, along with Marshall Field, for coining — or perhaps just popularising — the phrase ‘the customer is always right.’ In the quest to secure as many sales, and therefore as much profit, as possible, the belief was that no matter what the customer said or did (perhaps short of theft), they were always right. Or for those who go to Burger King, they can always have it their way.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this mantra would be the undoing of retail. And perhaps, in a way, it has. Retailers these days give people what they want, not simply what they need. Why else do we have Primark selling cut-price clothing and household goods? Never mind where or how their products are made, and what it does to the environment.

As axioms go, this is as true for clothing as it is for wine. In their quest to satisfy their customers whims, supermarkets are stocking their shelves with whatever is cheap and sells well. Is it what the customer needs? No. Is it what the customer wants? Yes, but only insofar as they want something that is a) cheap, b) familiar and c) uncomplicated. The everyday person wants an everyday wine, so why make it challenging by stocking the shelves with Georgian saperavi or Greek assyrtiko? Only the nerdiest of the nerds will buy that.

If avoiding confusion were the objective, our supermarkets wouldn’t provide excessive choice at all. And yet, this isn’t the case at all. During a recent shopping trip as part of my quest to find a cheap and drinkable muscadet, it was in a tiny Sainsbury’s outlet in the London’s financial district where I was presented with a confusing site. While its small wine fridge at first seemed to contain one of all the usual suspects (one Chablis, one Sancerre, one Soave and so on), this was not the case for our old friend pinot grigio.

For there was not just one, but seven of the devils lined up all in a row, each one as uninspiring and insipid as the next. Logic would dictate that if Sainsbury’s sees fit to sell just one Chablis, one Sancerre and one Soave, then one pinot grigio ought to do as well. But it seems that, in an effort to pile it high and sell it cheap the customer who is always right, loading the shelves with pinot grigio is giving them what they want.

As Lettie Teague wrote in the Wall Street Journal, pinot grigio seems to defy logic:

Watery. Insipid. Neutral. Boring. Few wines underwhelm as thoroughly as pinot grigio. Yet it’s a consistent best seller—retailers tell me that they can’t keep the stuff in stock.

This is not simply a problem at Sainsbury’s, to be fair. And it’s not simply a problem in the UK either. At a vast supermarket of a wine store in western Canada, there stood an entire shelving unit loaded with pinot grigio, each bottle no more compelling than the others. When I asked why they needed to sell some 40 different variations of pino grigio, the shop assistant slumped her shoulders and gave a quiet, frank response: people buy a lot of it, so they stock a lot of it.

Not that pinot grigio is all bad. In the right hands, made with good grapes and with care and attention, it can become a wine of character. As Peter Grogan once wrote in the Telegraph,

Bad winemakers will make bad wine regardless of the grape varieties they’re growing. Poor old pinot grigio, being an obliging and productive old fruit, has fallen in with some rather undesirable types.

Undesirable indeed. Sainsbury’s take note.

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

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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.