Tasted: The Outsiders of Languedoc

wpid-dsc_0689.jpgWhen I first heard of the group of wine producers known as The Outsiders, I had visions that they were a band of outcasts akin to those conjured up by SE Hinton or even Camus.

I was clearly over-romanticising. The Outsiders in this case are anything but a band of misfits and societal outcasts. Instead, they’re a group of winemakers. All of them upstanding citizens. At least as far as I could surmise.

This is a group of winemakers operating in Languedoc-Roussillon who come from all over the world and from a variety of walks of life but, crucially, are not native to the region. What they have in common is their active decision to settle in Languedoc-Roussillon to make wine.

There are times when calling oneself an outsider is something to embrace. When it comes to the bureaucratic labyrinth that is the regulatory framework of the French appellation system, being an outsider is often seen as a disadvantage. The stubbornness of the appellation system is no place for an iconoclast, where decades of tradition are preferred over ‘frivolous’ notions of commercial viability, free enterprise and experimentation. Despite this, it seems that these Outsiders have been able to overcome, or embrace, the bureaucratic machine and carve out a niche for themselves.

As part of their effort to market their wares to UK merchants, this group of international winemakers (they come from all over the world, from America and Australia to the United Kingdom, Switzerland and yes, within France itself) hosted a small tasting in London back in early May.

Looking back on my rather shabby notes, I can see clear evidence that this was a decent tasting despite having experienced the onset of a head cold that same morning. First, I managed to write notes against every wine on the list, a clear sign that I neither grew bored with the wines, nor daunted by their numbers. Second, the greasy fingerprints left behind on the paper suggest that the spread of charcuterie and cheese on offer was more than adequate. Of course, as the photo below shows, reading the chicken scrawl that is my actual notes does present a bit of a challenge:

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As a tasting that included a broad range of wines from across the Languedoc region, it is hard to make generalisations or make sweeping statements about the producers. Quality levels were high, but there were obvious differences among the producers in terms of what they are trying to achieve. Some are aiming for affordable, accessible wines, while others are aiming for something a little more profound. In other words, you won’t be having any flashbacks to that time you bought vin en vrac from what looked like a petrol pump behind a dusty shed.

If I’d had the foresight to, say, scribble down scores for each of the wines I tasted, I’d have a much easier time selecting my favourites from this group. But where is the fun in that?

Anyway, enough of my digressions. Here are my highlights from a good bunch of wines. Some of these winemakers are still seeking distribution here in the UK, while some are available to buy from various merchants and supermarkets, although I’ll be darned if I can remember which ones.

Chateau Rives-Blanques Occitania Mauzac Limoux 2013

A still white wine made from the mauzac grape, this is a rich wine that is matured in oak and offers up stone fruit flavours. This is a delicious wine that has a lot of heft and fruit behind it while still being dry

Domaine Sainte Rose Le Pinacle 2012

There is quite a lot to like about all of the wines of Domaine Sainte Rose, but if I had to narrow down my choice to just one, it would be Le Pinacle 2012. Consisting of 95% syrah and a 5% dash of viognier, this has the style of Cote Rotie with a lush palate and medium body. It has an attractive earthy character backed up by red fruits and the potential for a long life.

Chateau d’Angles Grand Vin Red 2010

La Clape is one of the great wine regions of southern France and this producer has brought some Bordelais swagger — complete with red trousers — to the area. The grand vin is a real pleaser, with a high level of mourvedre in the blend to make a deeper, bigger wine that has an attractive balance of fruit and earthy flavours.

Chateau Beauregard Mirouze Fiare 2010

I might be at risk of selecting too many ‘top’ wines from this tasting, but this was among the standouts from Chateau Beauregard Mirouze. With 18 months of barrel age, this displayed dark fruits (prunes and raisins) and had a deep, broody, earthy, chocolatey character to it. In many ways it was sunshine in a glass.

Domaine Saint Hilaire The Silk Chardonnay IGP Pays d’Oc2012

In the past I was never a big fan of chardonnay from the south of France. At times it seemed flabby, overripe and lacking any real character or complexity. But this is something different. It could very well be a competitor to decent Burgundy, having a healthy but not excessive oak treatment, not to mention a real elegance and finesse about it. Close your eyes and you think you’re drinking something from the Cote de Beaune or even the Cote d’Or.

Domaine La Madura Grand Vin Blanc 2014

This was a delight, a barrel-fermented, sauvignon blanc-dominant wine.Fermented and matured in older barrels, this older oak treatment is immediately noticeable on the nose, while on the palate it is rich with citrus and stone fruits, and has a long finish.

Domaine Turner Pageot La Rupture 2013

Another white wine that grabbed my attention. This was a lot like a white Bordeaux to me, made of sauvignon blanc but in a restrained style that is free from the more modern take on SB that has proliferated the market. Fresh, mineral and a good match for food. Not a whiff of cat pee to be sniffed.

Domaine Modat Le Plus Joli 2011

This is warm, spicy and very much a syrah from the south of France. With 80% syrah and the balance consisting of grenache and carignan,  this Rousillon displays licorice and nutmeg, with fine tannins and a long finish.

Chateau Saint Jacques d’Albas Le Chateau d’Albas Minervois 2012

A blend of syrah and grenache, this is aged 12 months in barrel and offers up all that is good about Minervois. It is warm, with fine tannins and a backbone of ample red fruits .

Domaine de Cebene Les Brancels Faugeres 2012

All of the wines from this producer were excellent, but Les Brancels seemed to stand out to me. This was what was described as the ‘house blend’ of syrah, grenache, mourvedre and carignan. I love the wines of Faugeres and this displayed all the characteristics that keep bring me back: warmth, earthy aromas a flavours, a good backbone of fruit and a fine complexity that pulls it all together.

Not mentioned…

Two other producers that were at the tasting but without a mention here were Le Clos du Gravillas and Domaine Le Clos du Serres. This was for no other reason except that my notes for these producers were a bit too sparse (likely because I was chatting rather than writing) for me to be able to write a recommendation.

 

 

 

 

Oranges and Turkeys: If the underpants don’t excite you, the wines will

Looking back at a year’s worth of credit receipts, it seems I really only buy underpants, socks and the odd bottle of wine from Marks & Spencer. I blame this on where I work.

Anyone who has worked in the City of London can attest that there is a dearth of decent wine retailers. Apart from Uncorked up at Bishopsgate, Amathus at Leadenhall Market  and The Wine Library at Tower Hill, there are not many other places you can go for a browse on your lunch break or even after work.

If it’s a wine bar you want, there are plenty. El Vino. Planet of the Grapes. 28-50. The list is long and varied before even mentioning the more corporate offerings. But a mere scattering of wine shops? You can find yourself scanning the same shelves over and over and over again. A man can return to the same merchant only so often.

It turns out some of the most daring wine offerings on the high street are being sold at what is probably one of the most traditional and staid British retailers: Marks & Spencer.

I haven’t exactly discovered something new. We’ve been reading about the wine selection at M&S for quite some time. As far back as 2008, Tim Atkin was telling us how much M&S wine had improved, while also revealing his choice when it comes to underpants (unlike me, he does not buy his pants from M&S).

For a big retailer, the wine options are rather bold. During a single visit to M&S, I counted wines from Brazil, Croatia, Greece, Georgia, Lebanon and Turkey. These are daring offerings considering that the most popular wine brands in the UK include the likes of Blossom Hill, Hardy’s, Echo Falls and Gallo.

I have not drunk any of these big brand wines in quite some time, but something tells me they are nothing at all like a malagousia from Greece, a okuzgozu from Turkey or even a much more conservative Turkish blend of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. This could be because the average M&S shopper is not the same as the average person who buys their wine from their local off licence.

IMAG0927-1Reading that last line, it occurs to me that I have become one of them, a person who seeks out obscure wines and grape varieties and then blogs about them in a fury. It appears I am behind the curve on this one. And I am definitely a long way off making it into the Wine Century Club. I would have to keep track of all the grapes I am trying, for a start.

Of course, M&S isn’t the only retailer offering wines made from the less familiar end of the grape spectrum. There are too many good merchants to name, although I will make special mention of Red Squirrel Wine for carving a niche out of selling wines that are out of the ordinary.

So. Back to M&S. On a recent trip during a rather bored lunch hour, I noticed this Georgian wine, Tbilvino Qvevris 2011. An orange wine, this wine is made by fermenting the grape juice in contact with the skins, resulting in textured, tannic white that has a pale orange colour and a slightly nutty, almost sherry-like characteristic.

In a Daily Mail article about this very wine, people who posted comments on the article said they were disappointed to learn that the wine wasn’t actually made with oranges or that the wine’s actual colour wasn’t the orange they had expected.

IMAG0929I paused after reading this and wondered why people bother to even write comments under these articles. And then I wondered why I was reading about wine in the Daily Mail in the first place.

At the same time I also bought this Greek wine, Thymiopoulos Xinomavro 2011. Made  from the xinomavro grape, this wine is said to be comparable to a fine Italian red. Is it true? I will find out soon and report back.

A few years ago, Greek wine would have been a no-go for most people. Their white wines might have been acceptable, but a red wine? Could it really be palatable? But these days, Greek wine is beginning to hit its stride. From assyrtiko to malagousia and naoussa, the country that for many was known for retsina and little else is beginning to turn heads.

M&S isn’t the only place to find wines like this. Online retailers, national merchants and local merchants have boosted their ranges to include something out of the ordinary. Go to your local independent merchant and give them your support.

 

 

 

 

 

When is wine real and when is wine not real?

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.

 

 

 

 

Why public broadcasters shouldn’t recommend only supermarket wine

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.

Flying blind: Stepping behind the curtain at the International Wine Challenge

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Anyone who has scanned the collection of bottles in most wine retailers, whether they’re small merchants or major supermarkets, is likely to have spotted a bottle that has won an award from an international competition. Whether it’s from the Decanter World Wine Awards, International Wine Challenge, the IWSC or anything else out there, there is no shortage of bottles that are proud to announce that they have gained the approval of the world’s wine experts.

This is a topic I have written about on 12×75.com, but in that post I only discussed whether I thought these awards had any real use to consumers. My conclusion? For the average consumer or for anyone who wants to make sure they are buying a dependable bottle, they are.

What few people don’t get to see, however, is how these awards are handed out. Forget those visions of luxurious surroundings with endless portions of wine and cheese. When I arrived for my afternoon on a tasting panel at the first tranche of the IWC 2014 at the Barbican Exhibition Hall last week, I found myself in stark, straight-to-the-point surroundings.

No wing-back chairs (almost not a chair in sight) and no punkawallah to waft cool air in your direction while you’re struggling through nine bottles of Rioja.  I was given the chance to experience the process of determining these awards during the round of judging for the first tranche of the International Wine Challenge’s 2014 awards.

Going into this, I had a fair amount of confidence that my palate was up for the challenge. This is despite my relative inexperience when compared to the Masters of Wine who were present; or the highly experienced wine writers who were taking part; or the wine trade professionals who have spent a life in wine. I have always managed to hold my own at blind tastings. How hard could it be, I thought?

Well. During my time on a judging panel flanked by a wine writer and consultant who used to be a buyer for a supermarket, a winemaker, the head buyer for a major London wine company and a recent graduate of Plumpton College’s wine programme, several universal truths emerged.

1. The best way to learn about wine is to taste a lot of it.

Attend every tasting, wine dinner, wine launch or vaguely wine-related event that you manage and try as much of it as you can in order to exercise your palate. This will help you to navigate the curveballs that are thrown your way, like a flight of gruner veltliner containing wines with 8 grams per litre of residual sugar or 16 per cent alcohol. Remember to spit frequently.

Your friends will think you’ve become an alcoholic, but that is the trade-off you will have to make.

2. Gibberish does not a tasting note make.

As it happens, writing a legible tasting note that makes sense and tells a story about the wine at the same time that you are tasting it will prevent you from staring at your notes in confusion when you look over them the next day.

3. ‘Crunchy’ is appropriate terminology for a tasting note.

But simply saying ‘nice’ is not.

4.  Winemakers give lower scores than wine writers.

They are like that university professor who gave you a B- when the others were awarding you As.

5. It is difficult to maintain concentration during a homogenous flight of New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

While there are nuances among the bottles, the fact remains that basic Kiwi sauv blanc can become fairly boring.

6. But it is surprisingly painful to taste a flight of rough and ready basic Rioja.

These wines are young, tough and tight. The acidity will burn your tongue and the tannins will sear your palate.

7. Don’t open your mouth during your journey home after the tasting.

People on the street and on public transportation will think you have dental hygiene problems.

Thank you to everyone at the International Wine Challenge for inviting me along for a day of tasting and to my fellow panel members for being patient with me on my first attempt at judging. 

Wine shop Where’s Waldo? (Wally if you’re British)

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I don’t like to admit it, but I’m a stereotypical man when it comes to shopping. Confronted by myriad options, I panic and try to rush the process, usually to my own detriment.

I have a long-running track record of coming home with bags full of new clothes only to discover they are all the wrong size.

Plus I am easily swayed by salespeople. If I tell them I want to buy product X, somehow I walk out with product Y instead – and then regret it later.

Twice now I have walked into a wine shop to buy a bottle of Au Bon Climat (they have a terrible website, by the way) only to walk out with something I probably didn’t want.

For me it seems bottles of ABC are as elusive as the Holy Grail was to Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.

It’s safe to say the buying process can be a struggle for me, so I find it unhelpful if the bottles of wine are arranged though the shop is managed by Rob Gordon from High Fidelity. Imagine if the bottles were arranged autobiographically rather than by country, region or colour.

These shops exist. Because I’ve been to them.

Finding what you want in these places is impossible without seeking help an employee. And I think that is part of the tactic, because whenever I’ve come in looking for X, they always seem to steer me, through subterfuge and sensory overload, to something else. Something more expensive. Something that, in my cynical mind, probably isn’t selling fast enough.

Now, you would think arranging a few bottles on a wine shop’s shelves is straightforward.

All you need to do, really, is have a different shelf for each country and then separate the white wines from the red wines. Then on other shelves you have space for Champagnes and sparkling wines, dessert wines, Ports, sherries and anything else.

Simple. So simple, in fact, wine shops up and down the country do exactly this, from the cavernous Majestic Wine Warehouse to the neighbourhood vintner and even the fusty merchants like Berry Bros & Rudd and so on.

Even the supermarkets – known for their efficiency at delivering products to customers’ hands – dare not meddle with this system. They know what’s best.

Yet there is always someone who thinks there must be a Better Way™ to do things.

I can think of two shops within shouting distance of my home that have shunned the conventional layout.

Offender number one has no signs on the shelves at all. It simply has all the whites on one side and all the reds on the other. After a few confused minutes of staring blankly at all the bottles, it eventually occurred to me which ones were white and which were red.

Then a few minutes later I figured out they were, in fact, arranged by country – but not in anything that resembled alphabetical order.

Last I checked Germany comes before Spain in the alphabet. Unless they’re referring to the country as Espana. But if you’re going to use Espana on the one hand, you had better be using  Deutschland on the other.

The other shop I visit takes it a step further and arranges everything by grape. Yes – by grape.

If you want to tell prospective customers they’re really not welcome in the shop unless they are knowledgeable to identify what they want by its constituent grapes (and it better not be any fucking merlot), you know you’re dealing at the higher end of the market.

But how helpful is this for the average consumer? Think back to a time before you knew much about wine. Think back to when you knew the wine only as St Emilion or Saumur, as Rioja and Chianti. A time when you couldn’t name the grapes used to make them.

Merlot? Cabernet franc? Tempranillo? Sangiovese? Would you have thought to head for the shelf with those grapes labelled at the top? Handy for those of us who wake up and say, “Today I’d like to buy a bottle of chenin blanc and I want the shop to arrange all of the world’s chenin blancs together in one place so I can compare and contrast.”

But not so handy if you wake up and say, “I just want a bottle of Vouvray, whatever the hell it’s made of.”

And don’t even get me started on some of the blends I’ve seen. Cabernet-shiraz. Chenin blanc-chardonnay-viognier. Or how about Olaszrizling-furmint-hárslevelü-juhfark?

Do they have a shelf for that?