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.

Gruner veltliner: I still don’t get it

DSC_0189It used to be the height of fashion, but these days you’d be hard pressed to overhear anyone who doesn’t work in the wine trade ordering it at a bar or restaurant.

In fact, there was a time, not too long ago, when it was the sommelier’s darling, a grape few people outside of Austria understood that offered up refreshing wines and something different from the monotony of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.

Then, as quickly as it ascended to popularity, the sommeliers of the world moved on to the next big thing (Assyrtiko? Torrontes? Albarino?). And so gruner veltliner fell to the wayside.

But why?

Maybe it was the name that did it. Gruner veltliner. Can anyone pronounce it? Is it ‘grooner velt-linger’, ‘grunner velt linner’ or ‘grooner velt linner’?

Then again, I can’t pronounce gewürztraminer properly either, but that doesn’t stop me buying it.

Whatever the case, the more I read about gruner veltliner, the more I feel obliged to love it. The only problem with this is that I simply don’t.

A while back I droned on about how I didn’t understand Chilean wine. What we have here is a grape-specific discussion in the same vein, a confession of my confusion when it comes to this particular example of vitis vinifera.

I drink gruner veltliner infrequently, but not by design. For instance, when I’m at a bar or restaurant and the other options by the glass consist of water sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, an over-oaked Californian chardonnay or something that was clearly incinerated by the heat of the Languedoc’s midday sun, my eye diverts to the gruner veltliner in a hopeful attempt to drink something that won’t sear my epiglottis.

Rarely does this extend to buying an entire bottle, either at a restaurant or from a shop. For the most part, it’s because gruner veltliner simply leaves me bored.

Yet there is plenty of evidence to suggest that I am missing out on something. If it was good enough to become the sommelier’s choice once upon a time, surely this is a grape worth noticing?

Jancis Robinson has described the grape as being “capable of producing very fine, full-bodied wines well capable of ageing”  that “produces very refreshing, tangy wines with a certain white pepper, dill, even gherkin character.”

The wines are spicy and interesting and in general this is because of the grape’s own intrinsic qualities because the great majority of them, unlike chardonnays, see no new oak. — Jancis Robinson

Similarly, Jamie Goode has described it as being food friendly, versatile and able to gain complexity as it ages.

So what have I been missing? Well, it seems that I haven’t exactly been on the wrong track all along. Even Jancis Robinson used to consider gruner veltliner to be a “poor second” to riesling that can lack character when it is over-cropped.

The example of gruner veltliner that I’ve been drinking is Josef Ehmoser Grüner Veltliner Hohenberg 2012. At £16.50 a bottle from Berry Bros & Rudd, this isn’t a weekday wine for the average consumer, but this bottle came to me as a sample bottle in a mixed case.

Now, this is a good gruner veltliner. Who could say it better than Berry Bros themselves?

Finely detailed with delicate, floral and white pepper/stone aromas, there’s a broad, soft, pulpy undercarriage, with salty/sweet, white peach stone flavours that echo those of Sarotto’s Bric Sassi Gavi di Gavi. Very pure, generous, with a distinctly sapid finish; one that cries out for a sea fish platter. — David Berry Green – Wine Buyer

My overly simple way of describing it is that it is floral, has some peach and apricot aromas, tastes of stone fruits (again, peaches) while also being fairly delicate, and finishes quite surprisingly dry despite giving the impression that it might be off-dry. This is definitely a seafood wine, which is to say that it almost tastes salty at times.

It’s good. Very good. And yet it hasn’t exactly made me a gruner convert just yet. In fact, it’s just made me even thirstier for a glass of sauvignon blanc or maybe a Chablis. What am I missing?

Big Mac vs Dead Hippie: On junk science and fine wine

Can you tell theID-100261094 difference between a £2.59 Mcdonald’s Big Mac and the £8.50 Dead Hippie burger from London’s MEAT liqour, purveyor of fine but pricey burgers?

Of course you could. One is anaemic and flat in flavour, clearly the product of mass production and cheap ingredients. The other is literally dripping in flavour, is handmade and cooked to order, and most important of all, loaded with expensive ingredients.

Few would dispute the vast differences between these burgers. So why is the opposite true when it comes to wine? The flow of news stories telling us that seasoned wine experts, from Masters of Wine and some not, who are unable to point out the cheap, £4 wine out of a group containing some of the world’s most expensive wines is practically interminable. But recently it seems that the volume of these articles has been on the increase — helped along the way, no doubt, by publications like the Daily Mail.

If you thought it was safe to progress through the summer without encountering a news article that dismissed wine tasting and wine critics as being entirely useless, well you were wrong.

Back in July the Mail, our favourite sensationalist newspaper and purveyor of mindless twaddle designed only to stoke rage among anyone remotely reasonable in character, proclaimed that its taste test of cheap wines from Lidl and expensive wines from top Bordeaux chateaux resulted in ‘hilarious’ results.

The article featured Oz Clarke, the expert, and two people who, shall we say, are more likely wine ‘experts’ insofar as they are expert at drinking it.

The only thing hilarious about the article, from what I could surmise, was that Oz Clarke pretty much nailed the entire tasting and yet the Daily Mail still tried to convince its readers that no one could ever tell the difference between a £4.99 Aldi Bordeaux and a £514 bottle of Chateau Haut Brion. Except Oz Clarke for the fact that Oz Clarke clearly could and in fact did.

This is a topic that gets more than its fair share of coverage, both in the anti-wine snob national press and among snooty bloggers like me. Politics has the debates over taxes and the welfare state; the wine world has the debates over natural wines and whether or not critics can do the one thing they have spent their careers doing: picking out the good ones from the bad.

Newspapers love a good headline. The Daily Mail knows this better than anyone, but it isn’t alone. The New York Times has been known to weigh in on the debate. So too the Guardian, which more often than not prefers to make absolute declarations in order to drive more traffic to its site more than it probably cares about the topic itself.

Then there is one of my favourite media outlets: NPR. It could, just like the others, spice up its stories to more sensational levels to drive traffic. But this is the house of reason and analysis we’re talking about. Sensationalism doesn’t  register in a radio network where the newsreaders sound as though they are whispering the news to you while sitting in a wing back chair by a roaring fire.

NPR also has a reputation for analysing a topic at a level much deeper than most other media outlets, so it came as no surprise that their discussion about the validity of wine tasting (Is wine-tasting junk science?) briefly veers into discussions philosophy rather than the mechanics of comparing a £5 bottle of wine with one worth £500.

The article also sums up wine tasting in a much more eloquent manner than my burger analogy above:

If you know English, then you are expert not only at discriminating significant English sounds, but you also spontaneously and reliably appreciate their meaning. Someone with no acquaintance with English can’t do any of this, even though his or her sensory organs may be in fine working order.
— Alva Noë, NPR, 8 August 2014

So is wine tasting junk science? The question I ask is, who ever said it was a science? I think the Daily Mail article provided us with all the conclusions that we need, even if it was unintentional.

We need to talk about brett

Few things are more satisfying than an earthy, rich red wine from the south of France. Those deep, dark fruit flavours. That whiff of garrigue. The hints of herbs and spices.

But…maybe not the stench of barnyard so strong that it seems as though a horse has dropped its posterior onto your nasal passages.

Blame brett.

Experienced wine drinkers will already be familiar with brettanomyces, that naturally occurring yeast that is either loved or loathed and can enhance or destroy a wine depending on its potency.

Brett can divide a room. The Aussies? They hate it and the style of wine they make down under reflects their dislike for the whiff of barnyard and sweaty horse that it adds to a wine. The French? Well they don’t mind.

At its best, a dash of brett can add a bit of tobacco, leather, bacon, smoke and so on. At its worst you wonder if the winemaker blended in a few bushels of manure from his neighbour’s grazing livestock.

DSC_0074It isn’t often that a wine’s aroma actually makes me recoil, but in the case of this bottle of Les Obriers de la Peir Terrasses de Larzac 2012,which was part of a review case that Berry Bros sent to me, the odour of manure dominated the wine and diminished anything else that was good about it.

I recall the first bottle being a little stinky, but nothing could have prepared me for the blast of cow dung lurking in this bottle’s inner recesses.

For £18.45 a bottle as listed on the BBR site, this wine isn’t exactly on the value end of things. I would expect a higher quality level, but the fact remains that something like brett can’t always be controlled. Had I bought it myself, I would have taken it back — and that’s saying a lot because most of the time I like a little barnyard in my wines. It’s precisely the reason I prefer the earthy wines of the Rhone and Languedoc to the typical laser-sharp Aussie shiraz.

UPDATE: A day after opening this bottle, the overpowering aroma had diminished and fell away to the background, although there were still clear barnyard notes. This wine is apparently not known to be bretty, so did I misinterpret it? It could have been something else, but it doesn’t change what I first picked up when I opened the bottle.

So what is this thing called brett and how prevalent is it? Jamie Goode did an excellent job explaining brett back in 2003. In short, it is a yeast — a unicellular fungus — that appears regularly in winemaking. It is often believed to spoil a wine, but this is the topic of hot debate.

During the winemaking process, all of the yeasts that exist in the grape juice usually get eliminated as fermentation progresses and the alcohol level rises. Normally, all these critters disappear when fermentation is complete, but if there are sugars and nutrients left over, this can open the door to our little friend brett.

Brett is a big fan of juicy, opulent red wines (like the Obriers de la Peira above) that are made with ripe grapes, have higher alcohol levels, high pH levels and low acidity. It likes to lurk in the vineyard on the grapes as well as in the winery. Good hygiene and clean winemaking equipment can go some way to holding brett at bay, but the fact that it exists on the grapes themselves means that it can pop up any time it likes. Filtration helps to hold it at bay.

At lower levels, brett is often one of the main contributors to a wine’s aromas and complexity. For example, it has a long history in Bordeaux wines, but its effects have been reduced over the years as winemaking practices have modernised and improved.

I’ll come out and say that I don’t mind a little bit of brett. But only a little. I draw the line at the point when my wine glass smells as though it’s filled with manure.

Reviewed: Aglianico del Vulture and GSM two ways

It came as a shock, but someone recently told me I should review more wine and spend less time writing about the usual nonsense that blackens these pages. Under normal circumstances I would scoff at a suggestion like this, but then a clutch of sample bottles turned up at my doorstep and I realised I might have to do some actual work for a change.

In entirely unrelated news,  this past weekend I found myself entangled in one of those weird exchanges on a friend’s Facebook status update where a preference for wine was being determined through nationalism. I expect this with sports and even the way words are spelled (aluminum vs aluminium being a typical example), but wine?

The only thing I am truly nationalistic about is maple syrup and hockey. And even then, maybe only the maple syrup (if it’s made in Vermont, it isn’t allowed in my house). This is for good reason. Only recently has Canadian wine become something to be proud about, so it will take us some time to develop deep-seated nationalistic feelings towards it.

So, anyway, the main thing that I learned from this experience was that, for some people, there is only one wine worth drinking. The mere thought of this frightened me. What do we do if phylloxera were to decimate all of France’s vines again? If global warming renders California too hot for grapes? If invasive species overtake Australia? Better to have a taste for all of the world’s wines, I should think.

With that in mind, the following is a themeless and unstructured round-up of several wines that I’ve been tasting – and actually enjoying – lately.

More from the Berry Bros case
As I discussed in the spring, Berry Bros offered me a short trial of their new wine club and since then I have been putting their selection to the test. One such test was to including one that faced the most challenging crowd of all at the regular 7WordWineReview dinner. That wine, a St Hubert’s Pinot Noir Yarra Valley 2011, earned high praise. So far, so good.

20140715-071004-25804501.jpg

Yarra Valley pinot is a bit too easy though. So here we have something from a region of Italy that most wine drinkers probably don’t know very well: Basilicata. This region borders Puglia and is in the centre of the instep of the boot of Italy. The wine, made from the aglianico grape and known as Aglianico del Vulture, is deep in colour and backed up by tannins, acidity and ample dark cherry fruit to match.

This Musto Carmelitano Serra del Prete Aglianico del Vulture 2011 doesn’t come cheaply, but you would be hard pressed to find this kind of quality at a lower price. This isn’t just some over-baked red wine from broiling hot southern Italy. It is deep and savoury, balanced with tannin and acidity, and surprisingly fresh with that dose of minerality that people talk about so much these days.

Out of the Penfolds bin
And now, to Australia. There is something about Australian wines that I always find distinctive. To call it ‘sterile’ would be insulting. What I mean to say is that there is a preciseness about them that makes them razor-sharp, fresh and clean. There is often a touch of eucalyptus or mint in there that adds to this effect.

20140715-071004-25804582.jpgThis wine, a Penfolds Bin 138 Shiraz Grenache Mataro 2012, is a long way removed from those lesser Penfolds wines you find in the supermarket. It is approachable now, but it gives clues of its ageworthiness. It is precise, finely balanced in acidity, tannin and fruit, but is also deep and bold without having any flabby characteristics.

This is one of those GSM wines (grenache, shiraz/syrah, mourvedre/mataro) that have become popular not only in Australia but other realms that offer ideal growing conditions for Rhone-style wines. I am not entirely sure of all the major retailers of this wine, but you can buy this one from Frazier’s Wine Merchants for £22.50.

This is a good wine that is worth seeking out if you want something Australian that aspires to deliver more than those Aussie shirazes and Rhone blends on supermarket shelves.

GSM the old world way
Let’s say you just want to drink an old world version of this wine. Surely the whole point of jumping on the GSM bandwagon is to select something genuine, right? Something cheap, something rustic, something from, say, the Rhone itself? Grenache, syrah and mourverdre are just three of 19 grapes found in the southern Rhone, so there is the potential for a lot of variety here, but the reality is that they tend to most commonly appear in wines from this region.

I could rattle of dozens of Rhone wines worth trying. Coudoulet de Beaucastel, while still not cheap at about £17, is one of the best. Then there are the old standby volume-made wines: Guigal Cotes du Rhone Villages and M. Chapoutier Cotes due Rhone Belleruche, each for around £11-£12.

As always, I recommend asking your local wine merchant to suggest a bottle. They probably have a great one on the shelf that was made in limited quantities by small producers.

20140715-071004-25804421.jpgWe aren’t limited to just the Rhone, here. There are plenty corners of the south of France that get ignored because Rhone shouts the loudest. When thinking of GSM, we probably don’t drink enough wine from Saint-Chinian. This bottle, a Terrasses de Balaussan Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun 2010 that I bought for £12.49, was one of those wines I brought along to a 7WordWineReview dinner hoping for the best.

Unusually for my recent contributions to these dinners, this one wasn’t rubbish. Sometimes, the wines you buy are duds. but this one earned praise. It expresses the warmth of the south of France, the garrigue, the stones, the sun and the dark fruits.

This is just an honestly good wine that offers genuinely enjoyable drinking for the price.

Where is this Saint-Chinian place then? Well, it’s between Minervois and Faugeres. Has that confused you yet? Look on a map of France, find the border with Spain on the Mediterranean and look for a city called Beziers. It’s about 40 km inland from there.

The Rhone isn’t the only part of southern France that does wine well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo post: California Zinfandel…just can’t say no

pedroncelliThere are certain wines, and wines from specific regions, that I simply can’t resist.

In this case, it’s a region: California.

More specifically: Sonoma County.

Even more specifically: Dry Creek Valley.

I bought this wine not because I know it to be incredible. The reviews for it on CellarTracker suggest it is good, but not a masterpiece. But Dry Creek is one of those areas where you can still stumble upon a winner you’d never heard of before.

So as I was impulse-shopping on my lunch break, the prospect of this being a winner was too good to pass up.

As you drive down Dry Creek Road between Healdsburg and Cloverdale, you have about as much chance of missing some vineyards if you happen to blink while you are passing by their driveways. I recall making multiple passes down that road to find some wineries. Over and over. And over.

And so this: Pedroncelli Bushnell Vineyard Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2011.

Now let’s hope it’s a winner.