A case of…three? Tussock Jumper Wines

wpid-dsc_0306.jpgFor years, buying wine has been simple. You can buy it as a single bottle or in cases of six or 12. This concept is so simple that an entire UK-wide retail chain, Majestic Wine Warehouse, felt there was no need to sell wine in quantities less than a full case. So they set their minimum at 12. Perhaps this was because their founders believed people would be mad if they didn’t buy them by the dozen.

For decades, anyone walking out of a wine warehouse across the UK did so with a battered Oyster Bay box under their arm, broadcasting to passers-by that they, quite possibly, have a drinking problem.

Now we have this. Tussock Jumper Wines. Sold exclusively through Amazon in boxes of three. Three? Not by the dozen, not by the six and not by the one. But three. This wasn’t dreamed up by a genius of wine retail but instead a genius of internet sales. This is a wine brand with global ambitions, but it’s also a wine brand without a proper home in the UK. Already popular in the Ukraine (its largest market) and Russia, Tussock Jumper lacked a major British distribution channel. In other words, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and everyone else said thanks, but no thanks.

Enter Amazon. We already buy our books, DVDs, electronics and Bosch electric corkscrews on Amazon, so why not wine? As it happens, the boxes of three are not the product of marketing genius but rather out of logistical necessity. Presumably the folks working in the vast Amazon warehouse in Rugeley aren’t yet proficient at counting up to 12 or even six, but they are just fine with three.

So anyway, back to the wine. A month or two ago I received samples of two Tussock Jumper wines, the Argentinian malbec and the South African chenin blanc. The positive is that there was an obvious attempt at quality behind them. The negative is the branding. This wine stands out for one reason and one reason only — its critter label.

Now, it’s safe to say I have a history of castigating critter-label wines. Cute many of them may be, you would have no more success selecting a decent wine by opting for the one with vermin on the label than if you threw rocks at a dozen bottles and drank the one that didn’t break. They are, as I’ve said elsewhere, a mortal sin in wine branding from my perspective.

Many wine brands are developed slowly over time, building on the reputation of a family estate, their place of origin and the skill of the winemaker. With Tussock Jumper, which is a winery that buys its grapes from wherever it can find them, there is no famous domaine, no specific place of origin, no family history to anchor them in the annals of winemaking history. The name itself is a play on words but could be lost on many. What exactly is a tussock jumper anyway? Presumably it refers to critters jumping over tussocks of grass as well as the red jumpers on the label, but I would be surprised if the average person on the street got it in one.

What is the verdict on the wine? In both cases I was mildly surprised. My assumption was that these would be all looks and no substance, their heavy bottles containing liquids displaying notes of battery acid and manure, and little else. But in fact they are perfectly serviceable wines.

The malbec had plenty of fruit on the nose, showing blackberries and brambles with spice and pepper, albeit in a one-dimensional manner that lacked real complexity. On the palate, it was fairly basic at first, tasting like a generic red with a dusty side that presumably came from its oak treatment. Not profound, but not bad either.

The chenin blanc, meanwhile, was a surprise. On the nose were melons, grass, cucumber, stone fruits and wet stones. On the palate it was fruity and dry, with more stone fruits and melon, but again it wasn’t overly complex. I was expecting something flabby and reminiscent of cheap jug wine, but it wasn’t like that at all. Not profound, but again, not bad.

There is just one problem. At £8.99 per bottle, Tussock Jumper has been priced to compete with a vast lake of wine in supermarkets and independent merchants across the land. While I wouldn’t hesitate to order a case of truly fine wine online, I haven’t yet reached that point in life when I want to buy all my wine that way, particularly the everyday stuff selling for £9 or less.

And if it’s yet another big brand wine bottled in the millions, you can be certain I won’t be buying it in threes.

Wine clubs: The good and the ordinary

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Recently I was asked if I would be interested in trying out a new wine club. They would send me a mixed case of wine and I could provide my most honest opinions. Two thoughts raced through my mind at that very moment.

The first thought centred on my concern about the ethical ramifications of receiving the case (and yes, full disclosure, I accepted the case). The second thought was that I was about to experience the inevitable mishaps of Britain’s couriers, who seem to make it their business to infuriate any person who doesn’t lay about at home all day during the working week.

Of course, the courier’s riposte to that is, what did you think was going to happen when you asked something to be delivered to a place where you had no intention of being during working hours? Quite. Of course, I could have provided my office address. But the whole point of having delivered is the delivery itself. If I wanted to carry bottles of wine home from my office, I might as well walk to the shop and buy them off the shelf.

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It took about a week from start to finish to cross the threshold of my home, but finally I was in possession of this case of wine. Specifically, a case of wine from Berry Bros & Rudd, the sort of wine merchant that operates out of a shop that looks like it belongs in the 17th century because it is from the 17th century.

I have dabbled with wine clubs and their variants in the past. There was the time I signed up for The Sunday Times Wine Club because a friend of mine bought from there and it seemed like the thing to do. Apart from receiving a welcome pack in the post, it has lain dormant ever since.

Then I had one of those Wine Bank accounts at Virgin Wines because the prospect of being given 25 per cent off whatever I bought – even those bottles of Dom Perignon – was enticing at the time. But other than those bottles of Dom Perignon (which were truly cheap after the discount) and one or two gems here and there, I found that their portfolio wasn’t for me.

So here I am today. Unlike the cheap and cheerful wines and stark tasting notes supplied by the likes of Virgin Wines, this Berry Bros offering is clearly aiming for something more. Along with the 12 bottles comes a membership pack in the form of a ring binder complete with articles, a who’s who on grapes and regions, as well as a guide to tasting, storing and cooking with wine.

Being a fairly straightforward person who self-identifies as a working-class Canadian, I’ve never been one for anything stuffy or ornate. But when it comes to wine (and bicycles), I can’t help but be absorbed by the culture. I can debate terroir with the best of them.

Most wine clubs want to foist a generic introductory case upon its members, often for less than £10 per bottle, which means most of what you get is at the more ordinary end of the spectrum. Think Sunday Times, Virgin Wines, Laithwaite’s, Naked Wines, et al. The only way you can avoid this is by going straight to your local wine merchant and asking them if they have a wine club of their own. You will pay slightly more for it – the cost of one steak dinner a month – but at least it will be good.

So, how is the wine? The case came with two bottles each of: a South African chenin blanc, a Chianti Classico, a red Rully, a Maconnais, a Ribero del Duero and a Mosel riesling. Not a bad selection, but it ought to be for £180 for each delivery.

I can offer my opinion for only one of the bottles so far, a Signal Cannon Chenin Blanc 2011. With a retail price of £12.50 (or £11.25 per bottle when buying by the case), this is more than your average UK wine drinker would spend on a bottle of white wine, but then again, the average Berry Bros customer spends more than your average UK wine drinker.

As wine goes, this is what South African chenin blanc is all about. Dry but with good weight in the mouth, plenty of tropical fruits and enough acidity to hold it all together. This isn’t like chenin blanc from Vouvray, but it isn’t meant to be either.

The only problem is the price. This bottle would run at a slightly lower price at any other retailer (it is selling for £7.95 at Davy’s), but we must accept that, in some cases, there is a premium to be paid when buying from Berry Bros (that Mayfair address can’t be cheap). And then we have to consider that Berry Bros customers accept a certain quality level at all times, even when understated.

Case in point: while Waitrose sells its Good Ordinary Claret for £4.99, the Berry Bros version runs at £9. If you’re a Berry Bros customer, there is good and ordinary and then there is good and ordinary.

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?