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.

Rosé, merlot and something from the Balkans: Better than you think

This post would have been a perfect round-up of three wines from countries competing in the FIFA World Cup were it not for the fact Bulgaria isn’t even at the event. This is what happens when you don’t actually pay attention to the sport.

So, now that I’ve got the pointless and frankly unrelated mention of the World Cup out of the way, let’s talk about wine.

Let’s start with merlot. It can divide a room. Few grape varieties find themselves on the receiving end of as much revile and hatred as merlot does.

Blame Rex Pickett Alexander Payne. Few people could be considered more responsible for the derision aimed at this grape than the man who wrote the screen adaptation of Sideways. While most of the story was centred on the wonder of pinot noir, merlot was the whipping boy. Pinot: lithe and lovely; merlot: fat and flabby.

Anyone who has sampled a merlot from California’s bad old days will understand. Overbaked, over-extracted, over-oaked and overdone – not much about it was charming. So too the chardonnays.

photo 3This is a real shame because there is no sane reason to be opposed to merlot in the same way there is no sane reason for anyone to have luposlipaphobia.

All of this rushed through my mind when I was drinking a Bulgarian merlot that I found on a shelf at Marks & Spencer. Peach Garden Merlot 2012 didn’t fill me with many expectations; Merlot fromBulgaria excites me about as much as chardonnay from California’s Central Valley.

I’m not going to say this wine knocked my socks off. It was basic, lacking in complexity and not memorable. But, for around £7, you can’t expect too much either.

A few reviews online castigate it for lacking fruit, for being thin, for being the embodiment of all those negative qualities that come with cheap merlot. But I am going to stand up and say that, for a simple, cheap wine, it isn’t that bad. It’s correct to the merlot style. It’s medium-bodied and basic, but it has the red fruit you would expect and an easy-drinking style. If you want complexity, spend more money. If you want a perfectly serviceable wine that you can pour into your gravy and sip on the sly, this one will do.

photo 1And so this brings me to another wine that gets a bad press. Rosé. As was written in these pages some time ago, rosé is one of those wines that can divide a room. This is particularly true among those people whose only experience with the wine includes the sickly sweet Blossom Hill and Echo Falls offerings, it can attract leers.

But this is summer and sometimes we not only want a crisp, cold drink, but we want something that says F-U-N.

And so rosé.

In fact: I love rosé.

Recently I was sent a sample bottle of Gerard Bertrand Gris Blanc 2013. I drank it over two warm evenings.

Many rosés from the south of France are brimming with the pleasant aroma of strawberries and cream with a dry palate that often pairs well with seafood. This one delivers exactly this, although it seems less full-on with the red berry notes than other wines of its type. This one is particularly crisp and a little bit more like a typical white wine, complete with a spritz and a good deal of minerality. For a wine in the region of £8 to £10, this is well worth a look, although it doesn’t seem widely available in the UK just yet.

photo 5Now, moving back to the Balkans.

Croatia might be best known at the moment for its football team’s penchant for nudity, but perhaps it should be better known for its wine.

When I was a teenager, I knew Croatia as a war-torn land that didn’t seem to be a part of the world where anyone would want to do much of anything. I was only a teenager, after all, and the Balkan war was in full swing.

But today, it does wine. It does wine quite well in fact. I could have chosen to feature a wine from any number of merchants, but my own laziness has brought me back to Marks & Spencer, thanks in part to  spate of shopping sprees there on recent lunch breaks.

We have here a bottle of M&S Golden Valley Grasevina 2012. Grasevina is, apparently, the most widely planted white grape in Croatia and offers up fresh, intense flavours backed up by a good dose of fruit and just the right amount of acidity. There is plenty of citrus and tropical fruit here, and this would be good for shellfish. Definitely worth seeking out if your usual choice for wine is a sauvignon blanc or Bourgogne blanc. And I hear their football team is better than Bulgaria’s.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Critter label love: Burrowing Owl Estate Winery

Sometimes rules are meant to be broken, mantras cast to the wayside.

For the most part, I am a staunch enemy of so-called critter label wines, the sort that use a cute, cuddly critter as part of their branding. The number of sub-standard wines with an enigmatic animal on the label far outnumber those that are genuinely worth drinking, so I have made it a rule of life not to give them much attention.

But this is one of those times when that rule was not only broken, it wasn’t even acknowledged.

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery is regarded as one of British Columbia’s best, based in the semi-arid southern reaches of the Okanagan Valley, a region unlike the lush rainforests I came to know growing up on Vancouver Island.

The landscape here is as close as you can get to desert-like in this part of the world and, in fact, is a northern extension of the Sonoran Desert. There aren’t many trees in these parts; instead, there are grasslands, small shrubs and brush, plenty of rocks and an abundance of loose soil. The bright green orchards and vineyards are all a creation of human intervention.

So, without further ado, let’s get to the critter love. This is what you see when you turn off the main road and onto Burrowing Owl’s long driveway. The road is much steeper than this photo suggests. And those tress on the hills are a lot smaller than they seem. Like I said, trees are not abundant in these parts. But grapevines are, which is good for us.

IMG_0138

In case there was any doubt, this is indeed Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, as the sign on the wall says. Complete with faux adobe winery-cum-cellar-door-cum-restaurant-cum-hotel.

IMG_0143

It looks pretty good in the sun. But it also reminds me of wineries in California’s Santa Barbara County. And perhaps Sonoma. And maybe some estates in Napa…

IMG_0141

It has a dazzling pool, though. And those vineyards you see in the background? Yup, those are Burrowing Owl’s. Well, except for the vines that Sandhill Estate bought from Burrowing Owl a while back. After several years of leasing the plots, Sandhill decided buying them outright might be a good idea. The result? Two wineries that share a terroir; perfect for us wine drinkers. Of course, Sandhill is easier to acquire, more of which later.

IMG_0145

Obligatory wine barrel shot…

IMG_0144

More vineyards belonging to Burrowing Owl. As you can see, they own a large piece of land, which is pretty ideal if you want to make a lot of money by making wine.

IMG_0156

Not to be outdone, they had a pretty big tasting room with plenty of wines on show. See, this is one of their better wines, the 2020 Athene, which is a field blend of syrah and, um, something else:

IMG_0150

More wine on show:

IMG_0153

For a brief moment while I was writing this entry, I thought I was going to have to cut things short and not say much about how the wines tasted. This is because, in my infinite wisdom and due to my stunning organisational skills, I wrote my notes for Burrowing Owl’s wines on the tasting sheet they supply at the winery rather than write them in my notebook.

And then I threw said sheet into my recycling pile.

However, because I’m slow when it comes to taking out my recycling, I managed to repatriate my notes from the bin so I can present them to you here.

And here they are….oh…

IMAG0723

Okay, so there aren’t going to be many notes on this occasion. But what I can say is that Burrowing Owl is probably most famous for its merlot, which unlike California does not illicit quite the same caustic response as Miles from Sideways.

But beyond merlot, Burrowing Owl does a good trade in syrah and cabernet franc. The 2010 Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc nearly ripped the skin off my upper palate thanks to its 14.5 per cent alcohol level, but this is not to say I didn’t like it. It had some excellent acidity, red berry aromas and flavours, and just enough oak treatment to round things off. It has more body than a Loire/Saumur example, likely because the climate in Osoyoos is just that much warmer.

The other wine for which I have reasonable notes is the 2010 Burrowing Owl Athene, which my notes claim contains syrah and cabernet sauvignon in something of a field blend. It is peppery, rich with black fruits and has this warm, baked aroma and flavour that makes you think of warm climates like the Rhone Valley. It has a spicy, oaky nose, but nothing too overpowering. It also has plenty of acidity and rounded tannins that will allow it to age.

Sadly that is where my notes end.

So, in closing, not all critter labels are a bad thing. In this case, we have a superb producer dedicated to making quality wines. They aren’t the easiest to find because their distribution to retail stores is limited (most is sold direct from the vineyard or through restaurants and hotels), so if you can get your hands on some, don’t hesitate. But don’t be surprised if you almost never see this wine outside a restaurant wine list.

Then again, many of Sandhill’s wines are made from what was once the other half of Burrowing Owl’s vineyard land, but are much easier to find in retail shops. So you might consider just buying that instead.

Vineyard visit: La Stella Winery, Osoyoos, B.C.

Earlier this month my father and I went on a three-day tour of vineyards in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Years ago it was maligned for its jug wine output, but with advancements in global warming and improved winemaking techniques, it’s starting to turn heads.

My father played the role of begrudging gracious designated driver and photographer during our trip, while I did all the talking and tasting. On a few occasions I think the vineyard staff thought he was some sort of security detail.

Anyway, the first place I visited was La Stella Winery in Osoyoos, a vineyard whose wines are not exactly the easiest to acquire if you do all your shopping in government liquor stores. Their distribution is mainly limited to VQA shops and restaurants.

So, La Stella. A Canadian winery making Italian-style wines from French/international grapes. Not that there is anything wrong with that, because what they’re making is actually very good – and the prices reflect that fact.

From the outside, La Stella was more impressive (and, ahem, commercial in appearance) than I had expected:

IMG_0125

Built in what looks like some sort of Italian-villa-meets-missionary-revival style of architecture, the winery actually matches the arid Osoyoos desert climate quite well. But let’s not be mistaken: this is not a part of the world where there was any Italian or Spanish influence on culture or architecture.

But none of this seems to matter in the New World of wine production, where history is manufactured and vineyards can make wine in any style they want. In this case, La Stella is a winery with an Italian bent. And not just any Italian bent, but one of a Tuscan variety – a *super* Tuscan variety. Which means you’ll find wines made mainly of merlot and cabernet sauvignon when you were probably hoping for sangiovese, nebbiolo or barbera. Oh well.

Now that we’re here, let’s look at a few more photos. Like all wineries claiming to be prestigious, La Stella has the obligatory stack of expensive oak barrels in its driveway:

IMG_0126

Meanwhile, the tasting room was, unsurprisingly, a carbon-copy of what you might find in Napa Valley or Sonoma County:

IMG_0128

Sadly, the prices on the chalkboard seemed to be out of Napa or Sonoma as well:

IMG_0135

That’s right, their bottles start at $21 and crank up to $100 for the top offering. It would have been nice to see a mix of whites and reds in the $20-$30 range, but instead their reds start at $35 and soar in price from there. But this is the New World, after all, and they have oak barrels, new vineyards and flashy tasting rooms to pay off…

But hey, their vineyard is beautiful and lies in a prime location overlooking the west shore of Lake Osoyoos:

IMG_0134

IMG_0130

Now, to the wine. Well, despite my snarky comments so far, it was enjoyable.

The best value of their bunch in my opinion is their Fortissimo Selezione di Famiglia  2010, which sells for $35. A blend of merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and just a splash (8% of the blend) of sangiovese (at last, an Italian grape!), there is a lot going on in this bottle.

And it’s a good bottle, too. Aged in Slavonian and French oak, it has a distinctly Italian feel to it. It has a freshness, some firm tannins and the kind of acidity you would expect from a wine made in this style. It was genuinely enjoyable to drink, although I still bristle at its price.

It could be difficult to sell to the average wine consumer at this price, but genuine wine fans who want an Italian-style wine made in Canada with French grapes might think it’s worth the cash.

photoIf only I could convince them to carve their own path and drop the whole Italian ideal they’re trying to adhere to, then we’d be onto something…

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.