Hard lessons: Tesco Express wine shelf letdown

ID-10044110I should have known better. There I was on Tuesday evening last week, standing in what could have been the world’s most depressing wine aisle, searching for a bottle of red wine match a pizza and a Bradley Cooper film.

What had originally been (loosely) planned as a small celebration of achieving my permanent residence in the UK fell to the wayside when we went to the pub directly after work and then straight to a house in a neighbourhood where the best wine merchant has “Tesco” written above its door.

Having been despatched to find us a ‘good bottle of red’ I walked into the Tesco Express [Note: I previously incorrectly identified it as a Tesco Metro – for shame!] full of ambition and determination. “This is Tesco,” I told myself. “They have an enormous wine range. Not all of it is  that 2-for-1 swill they so often peddle to the masses. What could possibly go wrong?”

Everything. This was a Tesco Express like no other. When I rounded the corner of the drinks aisle, I walked past the red wine shelf without even noticing it. I walked two laps around the shop before realising I had walked past it the first time. Turning back to the drinks aisle for the second time, I spotted the display – about three feet wide at most and tucked in at the end – then asked the shop assistant, who was stocking its shelves, if this was all they had.

“That’s it,” he said nodding in its direction. His demeanour suggested few people ever ask about the wine section in this shop. The sheer volume of beer and alcopops in the chiller suggested wine is an afterthought in these parts.

With my instincts in the right place, I scanned the top shelf for the finest wines. Jacob’s Creek Shiraz Cabernet. £9.99.

My heart sank. That was as good as it was going to get.

The selection was a motley crew of the usual suspects in the old 2-for-1 swindle. There was Jacob’s Creek, masquerading at twice its actual price for all £9.99 of my British pounds. Then I spotted the Chilean Isla Negra Merlot Reserva. £9.99 again. But wait, on the shelf below was another Isla Negra, this time the Isla Negra Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon. For £4.99.

Stepping back a few feet, I took in the entire display and discovered that every bottle before me was part of the 2-for-1 marketing scheme, a perpetual pawn in the 50-per-cent-off game, a ploy to get you to buy not just one bottle of wine you didn’t want, but two.

Pile it high, sell it cheap.

I looked back at the shop assistant, who was unloading clinking wine bottles from their cardboard boxes with the care and attention of a longshoreman, and asked, pointing at the Isla Negra cabernet sauvignon, “So are these always on some sort of 50 per cent off deal?”

Unsurprised, he nonchalantly replied, “Always. Last week it was the merlot. This week it’s the cabernet sauvignon. It will probably be the merlot again next week.”

Knowing I couldn’t win here, I grabbed a bottle of the Castillo San Lorenzo Rioja, itself at 50 per cent off at £5.99 and, full of rational thought at that point, decided I should also buy a bottle of Tesco Cava for a fiver.

Because if I’m going to get ripped off, I might as well make it feel like a celebration.

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Supermarket subterfuge: Roc de Lussac 2010

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Down the road from my house is a row of shops like so many others in Britain. It is lined with the obligatory small and shabby “supermarkets” and newsagents, their front doors flanked by wilting lettuce and shrivelling lemons.

It also has those take-away outlets that cook meat on a skewer, and those spartan cafés with harsh fluorescent lighting and melamine tables.

And then there’s the Sainsbury’s Local. It popped up a year or two ago, its slick signage standing out among the messy ‘supermarkets’ with the bruised fruit out front.

These days it isn’t fashionable to shop at major supermarkets like Sainsbury’s, but I confess I take more comfort buying from the retailing giant on this particular high street – mostly because I prefer to buy my food in date. And, let’s be honest, if I need an emergency bottle of wine, it probably won’t do me wrong. Right? Right.

Plus I swore off buying wine from random corner shops long ago. That was after a bottle of French white wine from a newsagent in Hoxton turned out to be the colour of iced tea and tasted mostly of mop bucket water. Never again, I said.

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So when I was wandering the aisles of my Sainsbury’s Local recently, I couldn’t help myself when I spotted this bottle of Roc de Lussac Lussac-Saint-Emilion 2010 on the shelf.

Its label, with its traditional typeface and charming coat of arms, looked the part. It looked serious, traditional, well-made. What could possibly go wrong?

Even better, the shelf tag told me it was 50 per cent off. Normally £15.99 marked down to £7.99. At that price, we’re laughing, right?

And that’s not all. It’s from the 2010 vintage, one that is widely regarded as among the best in recent memory. In which case we’re really laughing.

If you aren’t familiar with Lussac-Saint-Emilion, it is one of the satellite appellations of Saint-Emilion, lying on the right bank of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. Lussac itself is a commune about nine  kilometres from Saint-Emilion lying among the vineyards. I’ve been there and can say it is a pleasant but tiny place with the requisite village bakery and corner shop – and little else.

The wines from Lussac and the other satellites, such as Montagne and Puisseguin, are made in the image of Saint-Emilion but overall they are considered to be of lesser quality and, therefore, are mostly cheaper to buy. Perhaps it is the terroir. Perhaps it is something else.

Nevertheless, knowing the satellites are a great place to find value Bordeaux I thought I couldn’t possibly go wrong with Roc de Lussac.

So, when the day came to open the wine, I had high hopes. It’s worth £15.99! I only paid £7.99! It must be great, right? Well.

Here is a tale about supermarket subterfuge. As they say, what you don’t know can’t hurt you. Or even better, as Donald Rumsfeld, former US secretary of defense, once said,

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” 

As has been written about so many times recently, supermarket discounts are rife. It would be fair to say no wine sold at a supermarket for 50 per cent off its full price is ever actually worth that ‘full price’.

People who know this but buy it anyway are buying a known known, but choose to ignore it because they like a good deal. People who buy it but think something might be fishy are buying a known unknown. And people who don’t know this at all are buying unknown unknowns because they genuinely think they’re getting a good deal.

For £7.99, Roc de Lussac is perfectly serviceable, if still a little more than I would want to pay. Not great, not complex, but correct to its grape variety and very obviously a right bank Bordeaux. But it did have a slightly unpleasant dusty – almost chalky – side to it, a texture common to wines that are made with oak chips.

Of course, the big giveaway this wine was never worth more than a bottom-shelf red was the final line on the back label, which read, “Ready to drink now or will last for up to 3 years from vintage date if carefully stored.”

Considering it spent most of those three years in a warehouse or standing upright in a supermarket, I am left wondering how it is physically possible for this wine to be “carefully stored” at any point in its life.

And I can’t help but think £15.99 is highway robbery when I could buy Chateau Labat or Caronne Ste Gemme – both considered genuinely great-value  – for at least £1 less.

Pichon-Baron: When growing old isn’t so bad

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Growing old, while a bit of a bummer when your knees give out and your bowels begin to misbehave, has a few advantages.

For instance, the things that might have embarrassed us when we were young no longer matter. We’ve not only given up on vanity, but we’ve given up caring what other people think.

Once you are north of a certain age, you have decided that everyone else in the world is crazy (because we’re never the crazy ones, are we?) and any love interest you meet now has probably just settled for you. But that’s okay.

They say everything improves with age like a fine wine, but I’ve never really bought that theory.

This is because only the best wines improve with age. When it comes to people, well we don’t so much improve with age, we just learn to love live with our quirks and foibles – and those of others.

If we’re lucky, we can use this knowledge to our advantage, such as attracting women who find it endearing when, say, you fall over comically on the bus after one too many glasses of Sauternes (I still haven’t perfected this, but I’m sure it will work for me some day).

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This was all front of mind the other night when I donned my wine geek’s hat at a wine tasting held by Axa Investment Managers for members of the finance press.

You see, Axa, French insurance giant, also owns Axa Millésimes. Which owns Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron (and many more). And I’ve been dying to try it.

On this occasion we tasted Chateau Suduiraut 2006; Suduiraut’s dry white, S de Suduiraut 2011; Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron 2004; Les Tourelles de Longueville 2010, the second wine of Pichon-Baron; Chateau Pibran 2007; and Disznókö Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2007.

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This tasting was a lesson in the virtues of growing a bit older, even if the wines themselves were relative babies. While we had the younger 2010 and 2007 vintage, it was the 2004 – not considered a spectacular growing year – that impressed.

So here’s the boring, wine bore part of this post. This was a tasting that offered so much of what I loved. The S de Suduiraut was a little oaky, loaded with citrus and grapefruit, as well as being waxy and rounded. I could see myself sipping this on a sunny patio in Bordeaux or, more likely, in front of my television watching Food & Drink or something equally banal.

From here we moved on to the red wines. First was Les Tourelles de Longueville 2010. Obviously this is the baby Pichon, but it was deep and brooding, a heavy wine full of dark fruits, oak, liquorice and caramel. It’s a good candidate for decanting.

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Next we skipped back three years to Chateau Pibran 2007, which was again very deep in colour, starting to show a bit of age at the rim but still youthful and classic cabernet through and through. Lots of toasty oak, a vegetal nose, green peppers with plenty of tannin and dark fruits.

Now, one of my favourite wines, Chateau Tertre de Belves, comes from this 2007. Granted, the Belves is cheap and cheerful, loaded full of rustic charm and comes from the do-whatever-we-like region of Castillon, but the sentiment is the same: these vintages are becoming more charming as time goes by.

Then we had what we were all waiting for, the Pichon-Baron 2004. And it was at this point in the evening my note-taking took a turn for the worst.

This is what I managed to record before my pen made pulled a disappearing act: A deep, dark wine, orange hints of maturity at the edge, nicely integrated oak, vegetal nose, tertiary aromas of leather and tobacco, plus cedar and mint. More importantly, it was showing very well and proved that even if 2004 wasn’t a blockbuster vintage, there were some great wines and they are maturing better than first predicted.

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After the Pichon-Baron, I lost it completely. Never mind the fact there were two more wines to follow the Pichon-Baron – Suduiraut 2006 and Disznókö Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos – I just gave up on my notes at that point.

None of this surprise me. Nearly every time I go to a wine tasting, it is only a matter of time before the pen makes a disappearing act. As a result, I don’t really know what the final two wines were like.

I can say, however, that I remember the Sauternes was wonderful and the Tokaji sublime. But whichever aromas they offered up, the flavours they expressed, were never recorded.

And it must have been true, because while I was headed home I fell over on the bus and didn’t feel remotely embarrassed. But it didn’t attract any women either.

As I said earlier, I’m not so much improving with age but instead learning to live with what I’ve been given.

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?

Two Buck Chuck: If you’re going to slum it

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I have a few fond memories from my youth that involved experimenting with the cheapest booze I could get my hands on, but the best one involves a wine few people would admit to drinking.

A student’s budget and a general ignorance when it came to alcohol meant I tasted more than my fair share of oddities and abominations of the alcoholic kind.

But the worst of them all came into my life when my brother emerged from a B.C. Liquor Store with a bottle of red fortified wine called Bounty, a truly awful concoction with an alcohol level of about 20 per cent.

It featured a dramatic, square-rigged sailing ship on the label and a tagline that, if memory serves, suggested its contents promised us “the exhilarating taste of adventure.”

This was the sort of wine that was often seen on the side of the train tracks where the local alcoholics hung out. In fact, the only reason my brother bought it was because he spotted an empty bottle of it next to the train tracks that day, just a few steps from the liquor store.

We should have known drinking this ungodly elixir was going to be difficult. In the end, it had to be cut with a high ratio of tonic water. Even then it was still a challenge.

You would think, then, the same can be said for all cheap wine, that all of it is impossible to drink and nothing good can come from being a tightwad. And in many cases, this holds true. But sometimes you come across surprises – even if, deep down, you were hoping not to.

This came to mind when I heard the news that American grocery chain Trader Joe’s was raising the price of its Charles Shaw wines to $2.49 a bottle from $1.99.

If you don’t know of Charles Shaw, you might have heard of Two Buck Chuck. Yes?

I was sad to find out Two Buck Chuck would never be known by that name again. It was heartening to know there was a wine out there that could be bought for less than we pay in taxes alone on a bottle of wine in the U.K., which is £1.91 per bottle + 20 per cent VAT. (Annoyingly, even at its new price it is still cheaper than what we pay in taxes.)

In an absurd way, I am happy to say I got to try two of the last bottles (by last I mean among the last few million, no doubt) before the increase.

Being able to drink an entire bottle of wine for just $1.99 – or even the new price of $2.49 – is mind-boggling, although I know this isn’t unheard of in other parts of the world (I am reminded of a roadside sign in Castillon, France, advertising ‘rosé’ for €2 a litre).

The fact it tastes nothing like ethylene glycol or acetone is an achievement the Bronco Wine Company should be proud of.

Anyway, the two bottles of Two Buck Chuck (a cabernet sauvignon and a chardonnay) I recently acquired came to me by way of my friend Mel, a Los Angeles native who now lives in London. During his trip to the city of Angels over Christmas, he had the genius – and I mean genius in the best possible way – idea to buy them for me.

I always knew about this wine, but had never had a chance to drink it. It was featured on the California wine series hosted by Oz Clarke and James May, and my own father drank it when he was in California a couple of years back . From what I’d heard, it was perfectly drinkable and innocuous, albeit bland.

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The cabernet sauvignon, however, was a quantity I’d not come across before, but based on my knowledge of volume wines, I figured wasn’t going to be completely putrid. Perhaps it would be awful, but certainly it wasn’t going to burn through my stomach lining and cause me internal bleeding or anything like that.

Now, let’s take a step back here a moment. Think back to my experience with that bottle of Bounty. Or think back to your own experience with a horrendous, cheap bottle of wine.

If your first memory is that of a gagging reflex, you are on the right track.

But much to my surprise, the Charles Shaw wines didn’t burn as they went down my throat. They didn’t have obscene, rough flavours. They weren’t overly sweet like a lot of cheap New World wine. They were they were simply neutral, dry as they should be and, overall, completely inoffensive.

The chardonnay wasn’t over-oaked or flabby like many a bad California version, which should earn it a medal for that achievement alone. Meanwhile, the cabernet sauvignon didn’t have that sweet edge you would expect from, say, a Yellowtail wine, and if left to breathe for a while, had typical if uninteresting cabernet aromas and flavours, and tasted like an honest, if not complex, wine of acceptable quality.

Let’s remember here, these bottles were just $1.99. What else can you buy for $1.99? Here in the U.K., it won’t even cover the taxes.

On the cheap – Bordeaux for £6. Sure, it can be done

I’ve heard it time and time again: cheap Bordeaux just doesn’t exist. And if it does, it tastes like paint thinner mixed with marked gasoline.

Bordeaux is home to some of the world’s most expensive wines, they say. There is very little value there, they shout.

But I’m one of those people who says this whole “Bordeaux is a ripoff” thing is a bit of a myth.

After all, there are more than 120,000 hectares under vine in the Bordeaux region, producing about 700 million bottles each year. That’s a lot.

It would stand to reason, then, that a few bargains can be found from time to time. So I have a made it something of a mission of mine to find cheap Bordeaux that doesn’t taste like acetone.

How hard can it be? I can buy a bottle of 15-year-old claret for just €8 at the Maison du Vin in Montagne, France, so why can’t I find something similar here?

This week I found myself drinking something for £5.99 that was apparently rather savoury, was displaying great fruit and came complete with cedar notes. There was more to the blurb but most of the time I find wine labels rather forgettable and misleading, so I didn’t think to memorise it.

This is Waitrose’s Reserve Claret 2010 I’m talking about and, despite its already cheap price, is actually a step up from their most basic option, their Good Ordinary Claret, which sells for less than £5.

For that money, it’s probably better than most wine you’ll ever find in a late-night off-licence, but how many late-night wine-drinking decisions are made during the day anyway?

Anyway, a grand wine this was not, but that was always going to be obvious. But was it drinkable, was my main question?

Sure, but it had some negatives. For a penny less than £6 the first thing I noticed when I opened the bottle was an overwhelming aroma of rubber.

Thinking a bit of air would sort things out I left it in the glass and shifted over to the 18-year-old bottle of Chateau Potensac I’d been working on that weekend.

The difference between the two, of course, was palpable. One had pedigree, age, class and complexity; the other had a supermarket’s name on the bottle, a clear misuse of the word ‘reserve’ on the label and not much of anything to show for it.

Ah, except for price. At £5.99, it sells for about a quarter what the Chateau Potensac costs. For weekday drinking where you just want to get spannered, dump something neutral into a spaghetti sauce or maybe mull some wine, this wouldn’t be offensive at all.

To give this poor wine credit where due, it has a lot going for it. It was drinkable for one. It was showing the right amount of fruit and, unlike some other cheap red wines I’ve had, it wasn’t so tannic that it was tight-as-a-rusted-nut.

As I was buying this bottle during my weekly trip to the supermarket, I was reminded of other ‘value’ Bordeaux wines I’ve tried in the past. Front of mind was a 2009 sold by Virgin Wines under what they call a ‘cleanskin’ label. The marketing spiel made bold statements about its origins and how it was “the vintage of a lifetime” – all for just £7.50 a bottle.

One sip of that wine told me that, under no circumstances, was it a fine example of a vintage of a lifetime, even if 2009 was a great year in Bordeaux.

That brings me back to Waitrose’s Reserve Claret. For less than £6, what do we really expect from this wine, even if 2010 was a great vintage? I expect it to be drinkable, to be pleasant, to give me the confidence that I’ve not been duped.

So, has this wine delivered? Yes and no. Yes insofar as it was a drinkable wine that didn’t really cause much offence, particularly after it was allowed to breathe so the funky burnt rubber smell would dissipate.

No insofar as I couldn’t get over the burnt rubber smell in this wine. I know £6 is pushing the price/quality ratio a bit, but I’m sure it can be done.