Dispatches from a grape nut

A wine blog

When is wine real and when is wine not real?

by Geordie Clarke

ID-100146926When it comes to discussion topics, there are three subjects I try to avoid:

1. Religion

2. Politics

3. Natural wine.

Each of these has a tendency to uncover deep-seated opinions and result in a heated debate. My usual instinct is to move the conversation into a different direction or defuse the situation before things go out of control.

But another Real Wine Fair is here and I am feeling a little bit brace. The UK wine world has come a long way in the past few years and now boasts two fairs that focus entirely on real wine: the Real Wine Fair and RAW. This can only be great news.

The problem is, I’m not actually sure what ‘real’ wine is. Nevertheless, I am fairly certain I know what it is not.

Anything poured from a bottle that you would normally find on the bottom shelf of the Asda wine aisle at an overpriced London cocktail bar is probably not real wine.

There are occasions when you should risk it and order the Australian shiraz and there are times when you should play it safe have a martini or a beer instead. At least you know what you are going to get.

With the wine, you know you are always going to lose. Whether it is the pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, shiraz or merlot, you can be certain that the only thing that they have in common with real wine is the fact they were made with fermenting grapes. Apart from that, they are watery, limpid and devoid of enjoyable flavours.

This was the case with my Australian shiraz the other week, a £7.50 glassful of grape juice that tasted as though it had been laced with rubbing alcohol and Varsol. Standard fare for a City of London cocktail bar where people go to see and to be seen, not to appreciate the fluid they’re pouring into their gullets.

I could have used some real wine that evening.

Not long ago the thought of ordering ‘real’ or ‘natural’ wine brought with it worries of oxidised, faulty bottles that were interesting for their curiosity value but not actually enjoyable to drink. Occasionally a local merchant would carry a bottle or two as an experiment, but they didn’t really gain much traction.

A particularly awful natural wine that I drank in a (now deceased) shop in East Dulwich has haunted my thoughts for the past two years. Could these natural wines achieve redemption? It seems so.

In recent months I have noticed a growing collection of natural and organic wines at my local shop, Highbury Vintners.

Whether they are organic, biodynamic, low sulphur or full-on ‘natural’ wines, the increased focus on producing good wines with minimal intervention and sustainable farming practices is reassuring.

Thing is, I don’t actually know where we draw the line between normal wine – that is the wines that don’t purport to be organic, biodynamic or natural – and those that are specifically marketed as being organic, biodynamic or entirely natural. I understand a great deal about them all, but I have seen far too many debates – too many arguments – to be under any illusion that I could describe them in intimate detail.

This is where I lose sight of what makes real wine different from every other wine. Is a wine not real if the grower has to spray once during the year out of necessity? Is a wine not real if they don’t use indigenous yeasts? At what point is a wine real and not real?

I appreciate that this is a serious debate for many people; wine made in large volumes for the purpose of being sold in the mass market is almost never a pleasant thing. The line I hear most often is that real wine is made with the least intervention possible.

When The Winemaker cultivated his grapes each year through blood, sweat and tears, then turned them into a wine that earned him a living. That was real wine. His vines weren’t sprayed excessively with chemicals. But he sprayed what was necessary when the conditions required.

When I was speaking to the owner of Highbury Vintners, I was astounded to hear that their selection of natural wines was the small group of good ones out of a larger group that contained many unacceptable wines. When we think of stepping into a wine shop to buy wines, we think we are going through a selection process all our own, but in reality the shop owner (if it is a good shop) has already done this for us.

On that note, here are a few real wines I have been enjoying lately:

Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres 2010

This is a favourite wine of mine, made of a blend of carignan, cinsault and grenache. It is rich, has plenty of fruit and is reminiscent of the region. Not cheap at £19.50, but worth it.

Clos Fantine Faugeres Tradition 2011 

Another wine from Faugeres, this is fairly funky but again brings with it lots of satisfaction. Think South of France influence, garrigue, a rich palate and plenty of fruit.

Chateau la Villatade NoMa Minervois 2011

This is a producer that uses natural yeasts, keeps their sulphur levels as low as they can away with and avoids pesticides. This is rich and full of dark fruits with a tannic edge and an enjoyable earthiness. Despite its warm climate origins, this is surprisingly fresh.

 

 

 

 

While you were out: Online wine disorder

by Geordie Clarke

ecommerce

We can probably blame all of this on Bezos. And that man who founded eBay. They’re the ones who started it all, aren’t they?

For better or worse, Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar have probably changed our lives. Back in the mid-1990s the founders of Amazon.com and eBay, respectively, gave us things that, at the time, we never knew we needed: the ability to be fully functional shut-ins without an obligation to step outside the house. Not even when you have to buy an infant circumcision trainer.

Yes, it took a few years before both websites were fully capable of handling true e-commerce in a seamless fashion (I sent a money order in the post to pay for one of the first items I ever bought on eBay). And the websites lacked the rich photography of the items that are on offer today (who owned a digital camera or even a scanner in the 1990s?), which means it was pot luck if the item you were buying was, in fact, the item being advertised.

But as I’m sure Alexander Graham Bell would agree, no brilliant idea should ever be limited by the lack of technology to actually support it.

Wine retailing, without a doubt, has been revolutionised by the web and by the likes of Bezos and Omidyar. But I’m not sure if it’s for the better. For it seems, as far as I have observed, having an entire case of wine delivered to my home, as quickly as the courier can manage it, serves no purpose except to make me wait longer to receive my wine than if I went to the shop myself and picked it up off the shelf.

If I were a shut-in, an unemployed or even a self-employed type who is able to make a reasonable living from my sofa, ordering online and having something delivered to my house would be the ideal: I point, I click, I watch a bit of Jeremy Kyle and then, before long, a rushed courier knocks on my door and hands over what is hopefully a fully intact case of wine.

But the reality is different. Instead, I point, I click, then I regret supplying my house address because I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that even though this case of wine is guaranteed to be delivered within 48 hours, nothing could be further from the truth.

Half the time, the courier takes it back to the depot where the case will languish for god knows how long as it waits for me to request a redelivery. Under this scenario, I cannot expect to see it for at least a fortnight.

The rest of the time, the case is left with a neighbour who willingly takes it in but fails to mention that they are going away for a week. And the case lays dormant in their front hallway as I peak with desperation through their front window in the vain hope that they left the sash unlocked. It’s not burglary if it’s my package, is it?

Of course, I could have provided my office address. But who wants to be that person lugging a case of wine onto public transportation at rush hour?

It is a predicament. Unless you’re a shut-in, that is.

Wine clubs: The good and the ordinary

by Geordie Clarke

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Recently I was asked if I would be interested in trying out a new wine club. They would send me a mixed case of wine and I could provide my most honest opinions. Two thoughts raced through my mind at that very moment.

The first thought centred on my concern about the ethical ramifications of receiving the case (and yes, full disclosure, I accepted the case). The second thought was that I was about to experience the inevitable mishaps of Britain’s couriers, who seem to make it their business to infuriate any person who doesn’t lay about at home all day during the working week.

Of course, the courier’s riposte to that is, what did you think was going to happen when you asked something to be delivered to a place where you had no intention of being during working hours? Quite. Of course, I could have provided my office address. But the whole point of having delivered is the delivery itself. If I wanted to carry bottles of wine home from my office, I might as well walk to the shop and buy them off the shelf.

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It took about a week from start to finish to cross the threshold of my home, but finally I was in possession of this case of wine. Specifically, a case of wine from Berry Bros & Rudd, the sort of wine merchant that operates out of a shop that looks like it belongs in the 17th century because it is from the 17th century.

I have dabbled with wine clubs and their variants in the past. There was the time I signed up for The Sunday Times Wine Club because a friend of mine bought from there and it seemed like the thing to do. Apart from receiving a welcome pack in the post, it has lain dormant ever since.

Then I had one of those Wine Bank accounts at Virgin Wines because the prospect of being given 25 per cent off whatever I bought – even those bottles of Dom Perignon – was enticing at the time. But other than those bottles of Dom Perignon (which were truly cheap after the discount) and one or two gems here and there, I found that their portfolio wasn’t for me.

So here I am today. Unlike the cheap and cheerful wines and stark tasting notes supplied by the likes of Virgin Wines, this Berry Bros offering is clearly aiming for something more. Along with the 12 bottles comes a membership pack in the form of a ring binder complete with articles, a who’s who on grapes and regions, as well as a guide to tasting, storing and cooking with wine.

Being a fairly straightforward person who self-identifies as a working-class Canadian, I’ve never been one for anything stuffy or ornate. But when it comes to wine (and bicycles), I can’t help but be absorbed by the culture. I can debate terroir with the best of them.

Most wine clubs want to foist a generic introductory case upon its members, often for less than £10 per bottle, which means most of what you get is at the more ordinary end of the spectrum. Think Sunday Times, Virgin Wines, Laithwaite’s, Naked Wines, et al. The only way you can avoid this is by going straight to your local wine merchant and asking them if they have a wine club of their own. You will pay slightly more for it – the cost of one steak dinner a month – but at least it will be good.

So, how is the wine? The case came with two bottles each of: a South African chenin blanc, a Chianti Classico, a red Rully, a Maconnais, a Ribero del Duero and a Mosel riesling. Not a bad selection, but it ought to be for £180 for each delivery.

I can offer my opinion for only one of the bottles so far, a Signal Cannon Chenin Blanc 2011. With a retail price of £12.50 (or £11.25 per bottle when buying by the case), this is more than your average UK wine drinker would spend on a bottle of white wine, but then again, the average Berry Bros customer spends more than your average UK wine drinker.

As wine goes, this is what South African chenin blanc is all about. Dry but with good weight in the mouth, plenty of tropical fruits and enough acidity to hold it all together. This isn’t like chenin blanc from Vouvray, but it isn’t meant to be either.

The only problem is the price. This bottle would run at a slightly lower price at any other retailer (it is selling for £7.95 at Davy’s), but we must accept that, in some cases, there is a premium to be paid when buying from Berry Bros (that Mayfair address can’t be cheap). And then we have to consider that Berry Bros customers accept a certain quality level at all times, even when understated.

Case in point: while Waitrose sells its Good Ordinary Claret for £4.99, the Berry Bros version runs at £9. If you’re a Berry Bros customer, there is good and ordinary and then there is good and ordinary.

Finding the perfect wine glass: Don’t be a tightwad

by Geordie Clarke

ID-100150176If one word describes me, it is probably clumsy. I have a bad habit of breaking things not long after buying them, which comes at a great expense. New clothing is stained within the first week of ownership, while any mechanical or electronic device stands a good chance of being damaged beyond repair within months.

Just this morning while I was walking to work in the rain, I stepped on not just one, but two, loose paving stones that splashed cold water up my trouser leg. I looked as though I had severe bladder problems.

It is for this clumsiness that I shouldn’t own expensive glassware. Fancy wine glasses are not going to stand much chance in my household. They might last a few weeks or even a few months, but they will end up in the bin along with my stained shirts and damaged iPods faster than you can say Schott Zwiesel.

So it came as no surprise the other day when a not-very-cheap Zalto glass exploded in my hand while I was giving it a wash.

The first thought that went through my mind was the amount of money that was about to be thrown into the bin. The second thought that raced through my mind was whether I could justify buying replacement glasses the next day — to the tune of £30 each.

With this in mind, I thought it was an appropriate time to dust off a piece I wrote for By The Bottle last year and adapt it to this blog. The thought of going out tomorrow and spending £30 per glass is difficult to process, but then I thought about the alternative: going out and spending £3 a glass and regretting it.

Being stingy won’t do you any good here. Paris goblets and those cheap, thick-rimmed  glasses found in pubs are widely known not to flatter a wine’s character because of the way they are shaped.

As has been said before, if you want to maximise the quality of your wine, you should spend as much on a glass as they would on a good bottle. If you’re willing to pay £30 for wine, why ruin it by pouring it into a sub-standard glass?

Better flavours
We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to glass selection. There are probably too many options out there. Does Riedel really need to make a glass specifically for Kalterersee auslese, a red wine from northeast Italy?

The most important thing about a wine glass is its shape and its weight. A lighter, thinner glass with the right shape will do more for the flavours than something heavy and thick.

But choosing among the myriad options can be a time-consuming process, made even worse by the fact we rarely get a chance to do a side-by-side comparison of glasses before buying. But this exactly what I did when I somehow managed the people at Berry Bros & Rudd to arrange a tasting that allowed me to compare two glasses side by side. Could broadly similar glasses from different manufacturers really have any major differences?

For this comparison I made things relatively easy; I decided to pitch the undisputed market leader, Riedel, against a relative newcomer into the wine glass market, Berry Bros.

We all know these names well, but for different reasons. Riedel is the Austrian behemoth that makes 55-million glasses each year (so clearly not all hand-blown, ahem). Berry Bros, meanwhile, usually sells the wine you drink from the glass, but entered the market with a new line in 2012, The Wine Merchant’s Wine Glasses.

Head to head
It is hard to believe that wine sipped from different glasses of similar quality might take on different aromas and flavours, but this is a widely recognised fact in the wine trade.

For simplicity’s sake I compared the four glasses that wine drinkers use the most. From the Berry Bros selection, we chose the Champagne, White Burgundy, Red Burgundy and Red Bordeaux glasses. From the Riedel Vinum range we opted for Champagne, Chablis, Red Burgundy and Red Bordeaux. The Riedel glasses tested here range between £35 and £40 a pair, while the Berry Bros glasses sell for £47.50 to £55 a pair.

Into the glasses we poured four French wines to match the designs: Champagne Lahay Cuveé Prestige Blanc de Noirs; Domaine Pinson Chablis 1er Cru Montain 2009; Domaine de Montille Nuits St Georges Aux St Juliens 2007; and Château Batailley 2004.

The results
First up was the Champagne glass and this is where the Berry’s glass takes a departure from the standard flute, having a more bulbous shape than the familiar narrow flute. But how did it perform?

The Riedel held the mousse the longest and showed more yeast on the nose, while the Berry’s glass expressed a great deal more citrus. On the palate, however, both glasses performed similarly and to my surprise there were few, if any, discernible differences.

Moving to the white Burgundy glasses, again, the Berry’s version has a wider bowl while the Riedel Chablis is more traditional, having a small, narrower bowl. The fuller Berry’s glass suits younger wines that need more air to open up.

What caught me off-guard was the fact the Berry’s glass made the wine more rounded and mellow, flattering its aromas, while Riedel maintained the wine’s steely, mineral characteristics. Both were good, but it was plain to see how personal preference could determine which glass someone might buy.

When we drank red Burgundy, it was the Riedel glass on this occasion that seemed to best bring out the wine’s qualities. It teased out tertiary aromas like earth and mushroom, but the wine also seemed to be more woody on the nose, while the Berry’s glass tended express more minerality and freshness, bringing forth plenty of red fruits and spice on the nose and palate.

After three wines, test was a dead heat. Little changed when we tried the fourth wine, Chateau Batailley 2004, a fifth growth Bordeaux. It was only just beginning to show some maturity and proved a good test for the glasses because it came from a classic –  or less highly regarded – Bordeaux vintage and its flavours were therefore more subtle.

Out of the Riedel glass, there was lots of minerality and classic Pauillac aromas of graphite and pencil shavings on the nose, while the palate had plenty of dark fruits and a long finish. The Berry’s glass, on the other hand, appeared to be more expressive, showing plenty of oak and graphite on the nose and more fruit on the palate.

The verdict
Riedel may have been the driving force behind the current wine glass market, but today there are more options than ever before – and choosing among them is an arduous task.

The important thing to remember, though, is that even when buying a more affordable glass from a highly regarded manufacturer, you are sure to land on a winner to one extent or another. In the end, when forking out a significant amount of money for any wine glass, you are unlikely to go wrong if you opt for one of the leading brands. Just stay away from the Paris goblets.

Supermarket house wine: Don’t go there

by Geordie Clarke

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There I was, yet again, standing in a supermarket wine aisle on a Saturday night, my eyes glazing over as I was feeling overwhelmed by a sea of cheap wine.

I hadn’t walked into the store with any intention of buying wine. But confronted by all of the cheap bottles in front of me, I wondered if I could find something drinkable for less than £5; something that didn’t remind me of ethylene glycol, which is becoming increasingly difficult these days.

Previous attempts to find a sub-£5 wine have brought mixed results. I recall a French wine that rough that even the slightest whiff of its abominable nose nearly threw me into convulsions; nearly all of it made its way into a pasta sauce that gave me a roaring hangover.

Then there was the £3.99 Lidl Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, which was something of a success given that it neither turned me off nor sent me to the hospital. But it was as boring as dating a maths graduate and, given the name on the label gives away its penny-pinching pedigree, wasn’t inconspicuous enough to take to a dinner party without outing oneself as a miser.

And then there was the experience I had this past weekend.

Ever since I first spotted the Sainsbury’s House wine range, with their ominous black labels and similarly ominous low prices, I couldn’t resist. I could have tried any other supermarket’s house wine and the outcome likely would have been the same. But on this occasion I was in a Sainsbury’s and so this is about Sainsbury’s house wine only.

To be completely fair to Sainsbury’s, consumers want to spend £5 or less on wine, so they are providing people with what they want, even if the economics involved leave few options when it comes to the final product. In other words, you can’t expect much from cheap wine.

Nevertheless, I was optimistic. Having a little bit of knowledge about wine, I followed simple guidelines when choosing from the plethora of options before me: I chose red over white because that’s what people say you should do, to trust cheap red wine over white wine. I went for store brand because I couldn’t possibly believe a supermarket would put its name to anything to awful. And finally, I opted for Old World over New World because surely the traditional European producers have been doing it long enough not to poison me.

Let’s start with the Sainsbury’s House Red Wine, priced at £4.25. With an aroma of lacquer remover and the flavour of cherries mixed with hair perming fluid, it is not exactly what I had in mind when I read on the label that it tastes of ‘ripe raspberries and cherries.’

Being thin and watery, as well as devoid of tannin, it probably has a more successful life ahead of it as wind shield washer fluid than an alcoholic drink. The first thing that came to mind as I tried it was that it reminded me of those wines you get for £5 a bottle in a nasty pub. And that’s because it probably is.

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What I wasn’t expecting was what happened next. Knowing that Cotes du Rhone, even when cheap, offers good value for money and a relatively high level of quality, I had figured the pick of the bunch was the Sainsbury’s House Cotes du Rhone, coming it at £4.75.

It would have helped if I had read Matt Walls’s piece on supermarket house wines before making my choices. But that would have been neither fair nor in the spirit of this exercise.

The bottle says the wine boasts of “ripe red fruit flavours” but apart from an initial blast of sweet cherries and currants, there isn’t much else to this wine except disappointment. Sure, there is acidity and tannin there, but neither of these is of any use when it is completely devoid of flavour.

For the first time in a while, neither bottle saw much more than a second pour, and that was just to verify that my initial observations were correct. Being averse to dumping wine of any kind, the bottles now sit forlorn on my counter, with no purpose to their existence.

All of this has led me to conclude that it really is nearly impossible to find a worthwhile wine for less than £5 in a British shop unless your intended use is anything but drinking. Brake cleaner? Check. Degreaser? Check. Lacquer remover? Check. But an alcoholic drink? I think not.

Why public broadcasters shouldn’t recommend only supermarket wine

by Geordie Clarke

ID-100133089It was a recommendation that was universally panned by a panel of chefs and celebrities, but was made with the best of intentions. When faced with the challenge of matching a red wine with a venison dish on the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen back in November, Tim Atkin MW, the wine expert for the episode, decided on a bottle of Cotes du Rhone.

Good choice. I like Cotes du Rhone and, I suspect, a lot of other people who watch James Martin’s programme like it as well. But there was a catch. This bottle of Cotes du Rhone must be chosen within the confines of a series of counter-intuitive and restrictive BBC rules. Ah yes.

Now, I lack the specific wording of these rules (in other words, I haven’t seen them), but in all the years I have watched Saturday Kitchen, I have a pretty good idea of what they might be. It seems that the wine recommended must cost less than £10 (perhaps even less than this?) and be widely available in the UK supermarkets that have large wine selections (ASDA, Marks & Spencer, Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose).

If you’re hoping to see a wine from an independent merchant appear on the show, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

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On this particular episode, Mr Atkin’s wine, Les Dauphins Cotes du Rhone Villages from Waitrose, sank like a lead weight. The panel, which consisted of James Martin, Jun Tanaka, Bill Bailey and, er, somebody else, showed less excitement for it than a teenager would give to a beige minivan.

Having spent £6.49 on this wine that same evening, my opinion of it was no different from James, Jun, Bill and company. After opening the bottle, the reaction was more of an ‘oh’ rather than an ‘ah!’

Sure, it tasted of wine and fruit, and it even had a very small, subtle hint of those spicy, peppery flavours you’d expect from a Cotes due Rhone. But it had a rough and unpleasant side to it as well, like that cheap jug wine you buy at the side of the road in the Languedoc for 10 euros per demijohn.

There wasn’t anything necessarily wrong with it for a cheap Cotes du Rhone. Nothing wrong with it, that is, 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.

What did we expect when a watery Cotes du Rhone that has all the complexity of distilled water was paired with a rich plate of venison? Words like ‘profound’ and ‘captivating’ were never going to be uttered.

If this wine seems familiar to you, perhaps you have read about it over on the Sediment Blog, where it was described as thus:

It has a blast like a bath cleaning product. That departs to leave a rather acrid yet strangely shallow drink, entirely absent of such declared constituents as fruits,spices or indeed flavours.

This was never Tim Atkin’s fault. He usually recommends good wines and never anything he wouldn’t drink himself. However, given the choice, I don’t doubt he would have selected something a little finer from the Waitrose selection. Or he might have avoided the supermarket altogether and opted for something from an independent merchant.

This final point was brought to the front of my mind this week when I stumbled across two articles on wine selection. First is a piece by Eric Asimov, the New York Times wine critic, who explored the reasons why his readers struggle to find the wines he recommends in his column.

At the same time, I found a piece in Harper’s Wine and Spirits by Joelle Nebbe-Mornod of Aline Wines, who challenged the producers of Saturday Kitchen to recommend wine from independent retailers rather than rely upon supermarkets for all of their recommendations.

Both of these articles outline a major problem – as well as a solution. The problem with wine recommendations on TV or in national newspapers, and Saturday Kitchen in particular, is that they often seem to abide by a BBC rule that demands they choose wine from mass-market retailers, most often the largest supermarkets in the land.

Presumably, this rule exists to ensure the wine recommendations are affordable and easy for any viewer or reader to find. But often this means that the wines selected are underwhelming and boring. And in the case of the BBC’s cookery programme, it seems to break the network’s fundamental opposition to product promotion.

By only recommending wines sold in large supermarkets, it promotes brands and corporations in two ways: the supermarkets that sell the wine and the wines themselves, which are often from large producers.

It seems the BBC believes that, if unique and interesting wines from independent retailers were recommended, the majority of viewers would not be able to buy them. But, as discussed by Asimov and Nebbe-Mornod, the rise of online retailing is increasingly making this less of a problem.

In the UK, online sales made up 12.7% of all retail sales in 2012, statistics from the Centre for Retail Research show. This is not only a larger market share than the rest of Europe and the US, but it is also rising. More people are buying goods online – including wine – and this is only going to accelerate.

We can’t ignore that supermarkets still have the lion’s share of wine sales in the UK and are likely to continue to do so as they drive their sales online, but there is a vibrant and healthy independent sector as well. And this independent sector is selling its wine online as well.

I’m sure if Mr Atkin had been given the chance to recommend a Cotes du Rhone from an independent retailer, his chances of finding a winner would have been a lot better.

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