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.

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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.

Alcohol monopolies: Friend or foe?

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Alcohol monopolies are in the news again in Canada.

A recent piece in the Montreal Gazette has argued that it is time to end the alcohol monopoly in Quebec. Why? Because consumers are being gouged while the government-run monopoly lines its pockets.

For those of us from the Great White North, the alcohol monopoly is something that we love to hate. We love it because it’s like an old friend; familiar, always there, and always reliable. This is ignoring the fact, of course, that to at least a certain degree, prices are tightly controlled, access to product is limited and regulations are much tighter and more restrictive.

And this is what makes it a foe. Even though Canada is one country sharing a single constitution and national identity, there are strict rules about shipping wine over provincial borders. Moreover, because liquor laws vary from province to province, there is the belief that some people get a bad deal.

Then there is the service side of things. Consumers get limited access to the market (in British Columbia, consumers often can only buy a bottle or two of their favourite Bordeaux because BC Liquour Stores work to tight allocations), staff knowledge can be pretty poor in the stores and much of what is sold on the shelves can be viewed as generic dreck.

The Montreal Gazette article reads:

As Quebec’s only buyer and vendor of most alcoholic products, the Crown corporation brings in over a billion dollars to the province annually, about 1 per cent of its revenue. It’s the government’s most profitable venture, with margins over 48 per cent. As a comparison, Liquor Stores N.A. — a company that owns liquor stores in Canada and the U.S. — only had a profit margin of 1.9 per cent.

The argument, however, is not that the entire system should be privatised and the government distribution department be scrapped. Instead, it argues that the buying power of the government corporation be retained and the market opened up to private retailers.

In ending the monopoly, the SAQ would retain its duties as the sole distributor of alcohol in the province. There is a cost advantage of buying alcohol in bulk and the SAQ is one of the world’s largest buyers of wine and alcohol. This could be made to work in favour of consumers and businesses. Privately owned retail outlets would purchase their products from the state at a low cost and sell the alcohol at a price determined by supply and demand.

Such a plan could be a decent solution, but is the alcohol  monopoly necessarily a bad thing?

Ending the monopoly, sacking the employees at all the stores and opening the market to private competitors, as the Montreal Gazette piece recommends, might result in good things for consumers. But it seems to gloss over an important issue: it could put 8,000 people out of work and, very likely, result in lower wages for those who end up working in a privatised alcohol retail sector. This would need to be managed to ensure that unemployment and underemployment as a result of the process are kept to a minimum.

All of this makes me think back to a piece I wrote earlier this year about alcohol monopolies.

In it, I concluded that alcohol monopolies help to keep sales low and therefore the negative problems associated with consumption. But I also concluded that it was detrimental to consumers in terms of offering choice of product and value for money.

I used to be firmly in the ‘government alcohol monopolies are good’ camp simply because they offered a good shopping experience, seemed to have low prices and tended to maintain a clean image.

But the evidence, coupled with my experience living in the UK, has made me change my mind. These days it seems to be that the best thing…would be a free and open market for alcohol retailers.

My argument remains the same. But I’m not entirely sure the argument put forth in the Montreal Gazette piece is entirely realistic. And I’m not in favour of closing a retail system that would result in 8,000 job losses. That end of things would need to be managed carefully.

Most of all, though, I’m not sure having private retailers buy directly from the sole, state-run distributor makes any sense over the long term. One of the best things about the UK wine market is the competition in the distribution market, with small and large players striking deals with producers around the world.

In addition to the importers who handle the large brands and the prestigious estates, there is a litany of small wine merchants who travel far and wide to find undiscovered producers that have never before been available on these shores. Could a single, giant, government distribution branch achieve that? Probably not.

Wine tastings: Everyone for themselves

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In theory, the wine tasting is a wine lover’s utopia; dozens of bottles of (potentially) great wine free for the taking. So when an invitation arrives on my doorstep asking if I’ll attend this tasting or that, turning it down would be a sign of insanity, surely?

Well, yes. And, well, no.

The decision to go to any wine tasting is often made under the assumption, and anticipation, of how good it is going to be. Endless tastes of wine! Fine Bordeaux, Burgundy and everything else! Every sip a winner!

And so along I go, effervescent with excitement.

Seldom, if ever, does the mind consider the reality of many big public tastings:  a room of punters packed in tighter than the Northern line at rush hour. The Lingering Larrys who hover over the bottles, preventing anyone else from receiving a sample. And then there is that inevitable crowd of people who arrived drenched in a fog of cologne.

So what do I do? As a newly anointed British citizen, I do what everyone else in my adopted home does: I tut and mutter under my breath.

I have learned, over time, that there is a critical mass for wine tastings. Too few people and it can be sparse and awkward, particularly if a proprietor keeps hovering over your left shoulder, curious to know what you think following every sip. Too many people and it can seem as though you’ve waited 10 minutes just for a thimble full of wine (the retailers Naked and Virgin spring to mind).

A wine tasting needs to be just the right size. One in which you can lose yourself in the crowd but not feel as though you’ve waited so long for a sip that when you return home you’ll find your children have grown up and left for university.

The reason I write about this is because there is one tasting that I’ve been meaning to write about for more than a month now. Back in September I found myself at the Berry Bros & Rudd Wine Club tasting, held — where else? — in the Long Room at Lord’s Cricket Ground. It was a warm evening, the room looked onto the pitch and the late-summer breeze could be felt through the open windows. It was a very Berry’s crowd, too, which meant that my Canadian twang and lack of red trousers almost certainly marked me as an outsider. But no matter.

The list of wines was generous — 24 in all — and the group was big but not heaving. Perfect.

A British wine critics recently said that there is no venue better for a wine tasting than Lord’s Cricket Ground. I would tend to agree, even if it means my journey home is slightly convoluted.

And so what of this tasting? Much to my long-suffering girlfriend’s chagrin, this was one where I wrote detailed notes for each wine. I loved the Old World white wines, from the Le Caillou Blanc de Chateau Talbot 2012 (grassy, light and floral with a hint of caramel) to  the Bianco dei Colli Della Toscana Comitale 2013 (bright flavours of lychee and passion fruit with wet stones).

Then there were the Old World reds, such as the Domaine Jean Fournier Marsannay Clos du Roy 2011 (brambly fruits with a great mid-palate and a long finish) that ticked nearly every box for a good pinot noir, or the Celler de Capcanes Cabrida Garnatxa Vinyes Velles 2009 (deep, dark, black fruits with notes of cedar and a broody complexity) that showed how much great wine can be found in Spain.

Perhaps the most interesting wine on tasting was Chile’s Bodegas RE Chardonnoir 2012. This is a white wine made from 60% chardonnay and 40% pinot noir that smells like a Champagne, giving off nutty aromas of yeast and biscuits as a result of spending two years on its lees, while the mouth is lush and full, offering subtle hints of oak and a well-rounded finish.

These were but a few of the two-dozen wines around the room. And even though I didn’t like everything I tried (the Santa Celina Torrontes 2011 and Mullineux Kloof Street Chenin Blanc 2013 both left me wanting), I walked away happy in the knowledge that I found at least six that I loved without having to partake in a rugby scrum to try them.

Wine investing: Time out of the market

It’s time in the market that counts the most when trying to make a decent return on an investment, the experts say. This may very well work for equities and bonds, but when it comes to wine I’m inclined to say that not being in the market at all has been one of my best investment decisions to date.

If anything, I consider it redemption following my decision several years back to invest in a gold mining fund at a time when it was near its peak. One quickly learns the phrase ‘throwing good money after bad’ when faced with losses that exceed your age by a distressingly wide margin.

Considering that during my day job I’ve spent much of this week observing a bit of a meltdown (I’m sure I’ll eat my words over this) in the world’s financial markets, I decided that it might be fun to see how bad equity investors have fared compared to wine investors.

(Coincidentally, over at Sediment Blog there was also a feature on investing in wine this week, but you can rest assured that their piece is much more entertaining than mine and, mercifully, does not contain any charts.)

With my financial hat on, I decided to pull up some charts using data from Wine Owners and take a closer look at the situation.

The nifty chart below shows the performance of the S&P 500 (green line), FTSE 100 (orange line) and Wine Owners First Growth Index (blue line) in the three years to 4 October 2014 (the latest date for wine data). In terms of recent wine investment performance, it speaks volumes about how the market has responded to those over-inflated en primeur campaigns in recent years.

chart (2)Source: Wine Owners as at 10/10/2014

What we see here is a three-year loss in the region of 25% for investment-grade Bordeaux wine. This is in contrast to the approximate 18% gain for the FTSE 100 and 56% rise for the S&p 500.

I know where I’d rather have my cash socked away. And I know what I’d rather be doing with my wine: drinking it.

Of course, a little perspective does help with things and, as everyone knows, wine investment stretches beyond just three years. So here are the same indices over a five-year period.

chart (3)

 Source: Wine Owners as at 10/10/2014

Things still aren’t looking good for wine then.

See that little peak in the blue line? That looks eerily similar to the point at which I invested in that gold mining fund all those years ago. Lo, I have learned much of these many passing years.

But what if we looked at the data in a way that made it tell an entirely different story?

Thanks to the benefits of hindsight, we can all look back into the past and find a chart that will make us want to kick ourselves for not wagering everything on Lafite and Latour.

Like this chart, for example, which shows the performance of those same three indices between 31 January 2007 and 4 October 2014.

chart (4)

 Source: Wine Owners as at 10/10/2014

Thanks to its lower correlation to global markets during the financial crisis of 2008 (millionaires cut staff but not wine budgets, perhaps?) wine has grown by 110% compared to the rather weedy 5% for the FTSE 100 (not including the most recent meltdown) and the slightly more respectable 37.7% return for the S&P 500.

So what does this tell us? Well, if you’re an equity investor who has been sweating bullets this week as markets around the world have dipped, rest assured that you’ve done better in the past few years than someone who invested in wine.

If you’re a wine investor lamenting your losses, hold in there and hope for the best. I’ll be sure not to tell you about how cheaply I’ve been buying 2010 Bordeaux lately.

Guigal Côte-Rôtie: How much is that bottle in the UK?

IMG_20140928_153439Last week my sister was visiting the UK for the first time and I felt duty-bound to introduce her to all that these shores have to offer. And so I took her to Paris rather than expose her to the crumbling mess that is the British railway system.

Apart from the permanent cloud of second-hand smoke wafting through the air, the aloofness of the average waiter, the erratic opening hours, the stench of urine in the streets and the frankly homicidal drivers, Paris is a fairly ideal holiday destination.

No gourmand can be taken seriously if he or she has not made the pilgrimage to France to see what all the fuss is about. It’s why we use the French term ‘sous-vide’ for the cooking method rather than the simpler but much less elegant English translation of ‘under vacuum’. Similarly, no romantic can live life without having travelled to the top of the Eiffel Tower or walked over the Pont des Arts, which is heaving with so many padlocks that its railings are beginning to collapse.

For both of us, it was a journey of discovery. For my sister, it was a first visit to France and the European continent. For me, it was all about wine – and noticing just how much less the Parisians pay for it than we do.

IMG-20140923-WA0000Case in point: E Guigal Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde 2006.

Now, Côte-Rôtie does not come cheap. Today it is one of the most famous wines of the Rhône, but this was mostly the work of Guigal in the 1980s. For years, Hermitage was the leading appellation in the northern Rhône and Côte-Rôtie, thanks to devastation caused by phylloxera in the 1800s and dwindling vineyard area following the war, barely presented itself as a serious competitor. But revival came in the 1970s and this led to praise from critics (Mr Parker arguably being the main catalyst) along with greater attention from wine drinkers.

And so, if you want a bottle of E Guigal’s Côte-Rôtie in the UK, it will run you around £40 or more. That’s about four times more expensive than Guigal’s basic Rhône wines, such as their Crozes Hermitage or Côtes du Rhône bottlings.

Things are little bit different en France. While not everything is a bargain in France – you won’t find a discounted bottle of Haut-Brion at the LeClerc, for example – I can’t help but wince each time I visit a wine merchant.

Last week was no different. An initial trip to Monoprix, the upscale retailer whose apostrophe-shaped logo I constantly confuse with Vodafone’s served as a constant reminder that the Parisians pay a lot less for their wines than we do. I took little solace in knowing they are being fleeced every time they order a coffee.

I am not talking about an insignificant savings either. That E Guigal Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde 2006 at Monoprix? €32.35 or a little more than £25 at today’s exchange rate.

How about Miraval Rosé Côtes de Provence 2013? €14.90 at Julhe’s on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, while here in the UK it runs nearer £20.

And then there were the bottles of water. During one trip to a Montpellier outlet of Lidl back in August, my girlfriend came back with a 1.5-litre bottle of spring water for which she paid just €0.09.

It appears no matter what they are drinking, the French are always getting a bargain. Well, except when it comes to the coffee. The price for the average cup is obscenely expensive.