Clos Sainte Anne Pomerol: You can’t sell it for that much

dsc_0049.jpgWe’ve been hearing a lot about how Lidl and Aldi are taking the UK supermarket sector by storm in recent years. The national press is awash with articles about how the two German discount grocers account for 10% of the UK market. That Aldi has overtaken Waitrose to become the sixth-largest supermarket. And that the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrison’s have been quaking in their boots as more shoppers turn to the discounters for better value.

It’s the same for wine as it is food. Aldi and Lidl have grown famous for their cheap affordable wine selection. Countless articles in the Daily Mail and other newspapers about how they’re selling top-shelf wines at bottom-shelf prices have probably helped. People appear to have taken notice. Earlier this year I read an article in the Guardian that said one in every 13 bottles of wine we buy in the UK is sold at Aldi (a higher percentage than the supermarket’s share of the grocery market).

And yet. I’m not so sure we should be running out to stock our cellars with much of what they have to offer. At a recent tasting of Lidl’s Christmas range, it was challenging to pick out clear winners. It was far easier to find the duds. On the whole, their selection of white wines proved to be the most palatable, followed by some pleasant though fairly straightforward champagnes and sparkling wines. It was the selection of red wines that garnered the strongest reactions of the negative persuasion.

What Lidl does best is deliver standard groceries at the lowest possible price they can achieve. When you buy a tub of butter or a wheel of camembert or a bag of bratwurst, you have a good idea of what you’re getting for the money. It’s not nearly as opaque as produce from Planet Organic, where you know they haven’t made an attempt to squeeze margins for the benefit of customers. If Lidl is attracting affluent customers who know the value of a pound, Planet Organic is attracting anyone who doesn’t.

Where the entire Lidl business model falls apart is with wine. Unlike dairy products or sausage or angle grinders, wine isn’t an item where you can keep squeezing margins without seriously affecting the product. This is why their attempt to sell finer wines — because let’s be honest, it isn’t exactly ‘fine’ wine — has received such mixed reviews. It’s all fine and dandy to sell a cheap and cheerful Bordeaux for less than £10 as many merchants do, but this same business model is less successful when you try to sell a St Julien for £13.99 or a Pomerol for £14.99. There are reasons why wines with these communes on their labels typically cost a lot more than this.

This brings us to Lidl’s Clos Sainte Anne Pomerol 2013. At £14.99 a bottle, it’s not exactly cheap by discount supermarket standards. And being from the 2013 vintage — even if Pomerol fared better than most other parts of Bordeaux — it started life with a disadvantage. The final of three poor vintages in succession in the Bordeaux region, 2013 was probably the worst of the bunch. While July and August provided nearly perfect weather, they couldn’t make up for a bad spring that delayed the vines’ vegetation cycle and made it difficult to achieve ripe grapes. Some said it was the worst for 30 years.

Perhaps, then, my comments on this wine are unfair. But let’s not mince our words. It’s bad. And at £14.99, we can chalk it up to being cheap plonk. Given the poor vintage, this merlot is almost Burgundian, being lighter in colour and lighter in body. The nose offers up very little, with some red berries and a few hints of Pomerol-correct aromas, but apart from that it is fairly nondescript. It’s when it touches your lips that things go south. If its nose at least hinted at its potentially great contents, in the mouth all it does it urge the drinker to spit it out. Rather than tasting a finely made French merlot, I was beginning to wonder if it had accidentally been filled with one of Lidl’s factory-farmed Cimarosa red wines. Perhaps something Chilean. If we’re lucky.

And it’s not as though I was simply being a wine snob among a crowd of more reasonable people. Next to me were two others who spat out their Pomerol — neither of them possessing a single cell in their body that could be confused for being a snob. Much later on, someone at the event spotted UNDRINKABLE  scrawled on my book and asked which wine received that review. When I said it was the Pomerol, she checked her booklet and said that she had made a similar notation.

Could four people be wrong?

So there you have it. While it’s fine to cut the margins on greenhouse-grown tomatoes that people long ago accepted to be flavourless, you can’t source good Pomerol for £14.99. And you certainly can’t shouldn’t sell bad Pomerol for that much either.

BC wine has come of age

It’s been a long time since my last post but now that the summer is nearing its end I thought I’d share what is to me a new name in BC winemaking.

In recent years I have gone out of my way to spend time in the Okanagan Valley each time I travel back to British Columbia to visit family, but this year has been different. A shorter trip and different priorities made it virtually impossible to carve out a few days to visit what is historically the prime winemaking region of the province. 

Thankfully there is little need to travel to the province’s interior to taste the best wines these days (with a few exceptions). And while some of the best wines come with a price premium, there are still a few gems that represent reasonable value.

The wine in question today comes from BC Wine Studio — Siren’s Call Syrah 2013. Sourced from vineyards in the Similkameen Valley near Cawston, BC, this is a top syrah without the sticker shock that comes from other wines, such as those from the more established labels such as Black Hills. 

At around $30-35 a bottle, it is a good $10 less than competitors. This doesn’t mean it is a lesser wine. It is medium-bodied with aromas of black cherry, pepper and black fruits, with further cherries and dark fruits on the palate, with complex spices and pepper to finish things off. It is reminiscent of an Old World syrah with its restraint and dryness, topped off with a hint of New World fruit and sweetness. 

A weekend in La Clape – Part 2: Highlights from the Gerard Bertrand portfolio

dsc_0242.jpgSo despite being led astray by my SatNav and taking a detour through every village in the Languedoc, eventually we made it to Chateau l’Hospitalet. Never mind that we were two hours later than anticipated, arriving long after the sun had gone down.

Last time I visited Chateau l’Hospitalet, the weather was practically inhospitable. A relentless, icy wind blew for the length of the weekend, worsened by bouts of driving rain that made any trip into the outdoors about as attractive as shopping on Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon.

Thankfully this year the conditions were much more becoming of southern France. On Saturday morning we awoke to relative tranquillity. No gale-force winds or sideways rain. Which is a good thing for an event centred on vine pruning and watching a fluffy brown dog sniff out truffles.

Anyway. The dogs I can discuss in another post. Today we’re here to discuss the primary reason for visiting Gerard Bertrand’s flagship estate: his portfolio of fine wine.

Just prior to lunch on a Saturday morning we sat down for a tasting of 10 wines from the Gerard Bertrand portfolio representing a broad cross-section of properties and styles in the region. The intention was to showcase the release of new vintages, 2014 for the white wines and 2013 for the red wines. Here are my thoughts. The first four wines are white (in green text), the other six are red wines (in red text).

Chateau La Sauvageonne Grand Vin 2014
A blend of grenache blanc, vermentino and viognier. Medium lemon in colour with stone fruits, peaches and marmalade on the nose, as well as vanilla. In the mouth, it has a lush feel with further stone fruits and a creamy quality, with an element of minerality to balance things. Quite forward on the nose but very enjoyable.

Chateau l’Hospitalet Grand Vin 2014
A blend of roussanne, vermentino, viognier and bourboulenc. More restrained on the nose when compared with the Sauvageonne blanc. This is very clearly a roussane/viognier blend given its aroma, with citrus, stone fruits and hints of oak coming through. Medium body, it offers up further stone fruits in the mouth and has a long finish. Very good now but will clearly improve.

Aigle Royal Chardonnay Limoux 2014
A 100% chardonnay originating from Roquetaillade, the fermentation begins in vat and is then transferred to new barrels at the mid-fermentation stage. Light lemon in colour, this wine has restrained aromas of peaches, citrus and oak. With a creamy mouthfeel due to barrel fermentation, this wine is delicate on the one hand but with substantial power in the background. Very good.

Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2014
A blend of chardonnay, viognier and sauvignon blanc from Bizanet. This comes from a biodynamic vineyard where 70% of the wine is fermented in new barrels and 30% in steel vats. Malolactic fermentation is performed on some of the barrels. This wine has beautiful aromas of peaches, cream, vanilla and marmalade, with a distinct banana characteristic as well. In the mouth, further citrus and peaches come through. Very, very good.

Chateau La Sauvageonne Grand Vin 2013
A blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre and carignan. Deep ruby red with black fruits (blackberries, plums, black cherries, blueberries) on the nose, with hints of strawberries and black currants. On the palate there are more black fruits with a good backbone of tannin and acidity. This is a classic grenache/syrah blend with good fruit and is not too overpowering. Good.

Chateau l’Hospitalet Grand Vin 2013
Always a favourite of mine, the 2013 vintage of Chateau l’Hospitalet’s Grand Vin — or any other Languedoc wine for that matter — is truly worth seeking out. A blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre, this wine is aged in new barrels for 12 months with periodic stirring of the lees. This wine is deep in colour with dense aromas of black fruits. Still young and restrained, it is possible to pick up the hallmarks of this style: black fruit, garrigue, herbs and a distinct aroma of olives. With good acidity and tannin, this wine will age well. Very, very good.

Chateau de Villemajou Grand Vin 2013
Another favourite, this is a blend consisting of carignan, syrah, grenache and mourvedre where the carignan and syrah are vinified in whole bunches with carbonic maceration for 10 to 18 days, while the grenache and mourvedre are vinified in the traditional manner after de-stemming, with maceration of 15 to 20 days. Deep ruby red in colour, this has beautiful aromas of black fruits, blueberries, black currants, cherries and violets. in the mouth there is yet more black fruit with undertones of red fruits. This is very clearly a Corbieres wine with quite a bit of power without being heavy. Very, very good.

Aigle Royal Pinot Noir 2013
A 100% pinot noir wine from Roquetaillade, the grapes are de-stemmed completely before fermentation, with the wine ages in French oak for 10 to 12 months, where it undergoes malolactic fermentation. Light rub red in colour and offering up vibrant aromas of red berries, spices and vanilla, as well as strawberries and red currants. This has a  delicate feel in the mouth, with good acidity and a tannic backbone to give it ageing potential. Very good.

Cigalus Aude Hautervie Rouge 2013
A blend of an incredible seven different grapes (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, grenache, carignan and caladoc), this comes from a biodynamic vineyard where the syrah and carignan are vinified separately in whole bunches, while the rest of the grapes are de-stemmed and vinified in what they describe as the traditional way. A deep, dark ruby red colour, this has an intense, brooding nose of black fruits (prunes, plums, black currants), while in the mouth it offers of strong acidity and tannin with more layers of complex black fruits and a dash of vanilla. Full bodied, this is a powerful wine with plenty of life ahead of it. Very, very good.

Le Viala Minervois La Liviniere 2013
A blend of syrah, grenache and carignan, Le Viala comes from a small parcel of land at Chateau Laville Bertrous. The grapes are thoroughly sorted prior to fermentation, with the carignan and syrah transferred to the vats in whole bunches where they undergo carbonic maceration, while the grenache is de-stemmed and left for a traditional maceration for three weeks. Deep ruby red, this has complex aromas of garrigue, olives, herbs and black fruits. It is very much a Minervois, but of a fine quality, with black fruits and solid acidity in the mouth. It’s quite weighty but well-rounded with plenty of tannins to give it a long life. Very, very good and among the finer wines of the region.




How to survive New Year’s Eve

ID-100277It’s the midway point between Christmas Day and the New Year that is the most daunting of the festive period.  For many, there will be the inevitable leftovers of Christmas dinner to polish off. And for others there will be the repeat dinners at the homes of in-laws and aunts and uncles that not only require making room for yet more turkey and yet more bread sauce, but monotonous motorway journeys and interminable conversations with Uncle Harry about the current status of his gastrointestinal plight.

While the indulgences of Christmas itself are now a fuzzy memory, you know that there will almost certainly be yet more to come on New Year’s Eve — if not before. So, if you are going to make it through to New Year’s Day with your dignity (as well as your liver) intact, you need a plan.

Rule #1: Don’t drink during the day

I can hear your cries; only a killjoy enforces a no-drinking rule during the day. But how many of us feel genuinely good in the morning following an entire day of indulgence? If you stay away from the booze until the evening you are at least giving yourself a fighting chance. While this is a good plan for New Year’s Eve itself, it also applies to the entirely of the festive season. Everyone has that family member who starts sipping the whisky from 11am each day over Christmas. Just ask yourself, do you want to be that person?

 Rule #2:  Pace yourself

In many ways this is connected to the first rule. The festive period is a marathon, not a sprint, and the opportunities to revel are plenty. But if you have any intentions of remaining upright and conscious at midnight on NYE, you might want to sip your drinks slowly rather than guzzle them as though it’s your last day on Earth.

For some, this can prove challenging. I recall one New Year’s Eve when a friend of a friend clocked my bottle of Irish whiskey, apparently his favourite, and chugged it as though it were Powerade. On the same night, someone who had been drinking neat spirits out of a pint glass ended up lying prone in the middle of the street with traffic having to divert around him. Hint: If you’re already slurring your words before 8pm, you’re doing it wrong. No really, you are.

Rule #3: Take a break

One the best things I did this year was to sip my drink slowly and stop drinking wine midway through dinner at my company’s Christmas party. By the time the event ended and I headed for home, it was almost as though I hadn’t drunk anything at all. If you have any hope of lasting until the wee hours of New Year’s Day, there’s no harm in putting the drink down for a while.

Rule #4: Beer (and fizz) before wine…

This is perhaps the most important and was the inspiration for this blog. Looking back at every celebration that ended in pain, a key component of my undoing has been mixing the wrong kind of drinks at the wrong time. Most of the time, this undoing was caused by the (over) consumption of some form of sparkling wine following an evening of drinking more than enough still wine, the only outlier being an ill-fated decision to knock back an after-dinner espresso martini a couple of months back.

Let’s not skirt around the issue: sparkling wine can and will get you drunker faster if decided to mix it with other drinks. While often regarded as a myth, there is some evidence that carbonated alcohol, such as Champagne, accelerates inebriation.  Anecdotally, I would agree. Sadly, this sort of reaction does not bode well for New Year’s Eve if preferred drink for midnight is Champagne or one of its analogues. There is also some evidence that beer or another other fizzy alcoholic drinks can have the same effect, but I can say from experience that the only culprit for me is sparkling wine, whether English fizz, Cava, Champagne or Prosecco.

Rule #5: Eat

Your liver typically process one standard drink per hour. The quicker you knock them back, the harder and longer your liver has to work after you drink. Growing up in Canada, the typical night out didn’t start until well after 9pm, which usually meant having a sensible dinner earlier in the evening. Upon moving to the UK in my mid-20s, I quickly realised that priorities were much different as nights out usually began straight after work. Anyone in the UK who has Canadian or American friends knows what I am talking about.

The  fact remains that your body absorbs alcohol more slowly following a meal, up to three times slower depending on the type of food consumed. Think about it; that can make all the difference between a romantic midnight kiss with your significant other at midnight or making an unsuccessful and embarrassing pass at your best friend’s sibling.

A weekend in La Clape – Part 1

dsc_0239.jpgI had an inkling something was up as we crept through the Friday afternoon rush on the northern outskirts of Montpellier.  But it wasn’t until we were stuck in the narrow Roman streets of Béziers that my suspicions were confirmed. I had fallen victim to a fat-finger error when programming my SatNav.

So it goes that what should have been a one-hour drive to Narbonne from Montpellier–Méditerranée Airport became a two-and-a-half-hour mission through the Languedoc’s most frustrating and congested roads. There are surprisingly few alternative routes available when you’re stuck in a traffic jam in the French countryside. Credit to my passenger, who, despite having to endure my complaints about a suspiciously faulty SatNav, maintained optimism that we would reach our destination prior to our grandchildren graduating from university.

The destination, Chateau l’Hospitalet in La Clape, is the seat of Gerard Bertrand’s wine business and we were headed there for its annual vine pruning celebration. Most of us approach the task of pruning anything in the garden with a degree of reluctance, keen to avoid it in the hope that someone else will do the job for them. But for the vignerons of France, especially those in the Languedoc, vine pruning is just as important as making the wine itself, so it is important to honour the labour that goes into it. It is also a great excuse for a party.

As the website for Gerard Bertrand says:

Vine pruning is without a doubt the most difficult task of winegrowers. This meticulous work represents the beginning of the vine life cycle and every winter the wine growers are working to give birth to what will be the fruit of a whole year’s work. It is with these excessive temperatures that on our vines, the wine growers accomplish 15 million pruning movements with infinite precision influencing the next harvest as much as the vine for the rest of its life.

It was for this reason that we were headed to Gerard Bertrand’s vineyard for a celebration that included outdoor activities, a wine tasting and a gala dinner. All we had to do was get there. But first we had to endure a drive fraught with calamity. First the wrong route on the SatNav. Then an attempt to deviate from the ill-fated route to find the toll highway only to second-guess my judgement and turn back. And finally when presented with the last opportunity to pull onto the autoroute à péage we found ourselves whizzing by in a blur of confusion and ineptitude.

It’s amazing what crosses the mind when you’re stuck in a line of traffic in the centre of Béziers.  None of it will do anything to get you to your destination any faster. Even when the only option is to keep pressing on, the mind wills you to give up. To pull to the side of the road and throw the SatNav into the River Orb. To get out of the car and lob obscenities at the traffic that is impeding your journey.

It’s not as though I have no sense of direction. Some would say I can read a map and remember a route better than most. And it’s not as though I haven’t driven this route in the past. In fact, I’m well-acquainted with the roads between Montpellier and Narbonne. But I’m also a man of a certain age and, therefore, I’m predisposed to errors not only of the navigational variety but also of the male brain. Get in rental car. Turn key. Pull out of parking lot. Immediately and with blind confidence turn the wrong direction or willingly follow the wrong route on a SatNav.

In the end, we made it. But only with enough time to check in at reception and race up to our room for a wardrobe change before heading straight to the restaurant for drinks and dinner. The real work would take place the following morning in the form of a masterclass tasting of Gerard Bertrand’s latest vintages. That will have to wait for next time.

Fuzzy memories: Friday Fizz

wpid-dsc_0758.jpgIt’s difficult to remember a time when each day of the week didn’t have a cute name that encouraged us to drink wine. As though we needed additional excuses to imbibe, social media has hastened the spread of such occasions as Wine Wednesday or Thirsty Thursday.

Before it became fashionable to get tipsy mid-week, Friday was the day when the floodgates would open. No special name required. Friday was the word.

In this era of alliteration, simply calling it Friday would not do. But what in the wine world will match Friday? Fetească Regală Friday? I think not. I could see there being a Fino Friday, but you won’t want to drink too much given that it’s 15% ABV.

Helpfully, the British have an insatiable thirst for sparkling wine and Prosecco in particular. Last year, Prosecco overtook Champagne as the favourite fizz of the UK. Sales of the Italian sparkling wine soared to £182-million compared to £141-million for Champagne. Overall, volume sales for Prosecco amounts to 21-million litres in 2014, with Champagne at 6.5-million and Cava at 13-million.

It didn’t take long for someone to name a day of the week in honour of all the sparkling wine we drink. Hence Friday Fizz. But before we all ventured off to Aldi for ration of Prosecco at the start of the weekend, I had a friend who was honouring Prosecco Friday with a pallet of bottles bought from a Mancunian discount store that sold it for so cheap that it made Aldi and Lidl look like Fortnum & Mason. So cheap that you’d be mad not to bathe in it.

Except the thing with most Prosecco is that it satisfies that desire for something fizzy, but it doesn’t do much else. And so it can be a real challenge to write anything profound other than to say it’s a crisp, fruity and fizzy means of delivering a desired amount of alcohol into my bloodstream. QED.

All of this build-up relates to the fact that, quite a few months back, I was sent a picnic basket containing a fairly useful wool blanket and three bottles of Italian fizz: two sparklers from Piedmont and one Asti Spumante. There was also a Presecco DOC for good measure. Sample bottles from Gancia — okay, freebies.

If you read Sediment Blog last week, you’ll know they forgot to taste the sample bottle they were tasting. I can say it’s easy to suffer the same fate. Because in this case, I’ve done exactly the same thing. First, I kept putting it off. I’ll review them another day, I kept saying. The problem is that, in my house, Friday Fizz almost always has a disastrous effect on my Saturday mornings. Opening a bottle of fizz is not the same as opening a bottle of Fino. You don’t merely have one glass and then stash the bottle in the fridge until the following day. No. Fizz is of the moment. Once those bubbles are released, their existence is fleeting. So you open a bottle, drink the contents and then wake up the following day feeling as though someone has hit you over the head with a mallet.

So. Those bottles from Gancia. The problem is that while I recall where those bottles went, I can’t recall the exact location of my tasting notes if any were written. The bottles in question were:

I hate to disappoint the folks at Full Fat PR, but my review has been nothing short of a failure. The fizz was superb, but I’ll be darned if I can muster precise tasting notes that go beyond preferring these bottles of Gancia to your garden variety Italian sparklers. It seems none of this will matter all that much, for even though the folks at Gancia announced a big launch into the UK last spring, it looks nigh on impossible to buy in the retail trade right now. Pity.