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.

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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?

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.

House wine: Sometimes you just want to drink the cheap stuff

After spending a week in the scorching 35C heat that is typical of Rome in late June, I came to the realisation there is no such thing as wine snobbery when all you want is something cold, wet and refreshing.

When you’ve spent all morning schlepping around the Roman Fora, up and down the Colosseum, then shuffling through various other museums, come lunch time it doesn’t matter how fine or special that wine be when you plan to quaff it without any consideration for however complex it might be.

Normally I would shy away from ordering the house wine willy nilly at an unknown restaurant. And there are many more places I eat and drink regularly where I still won’t touch their cheap stuff. This is status quo here in the UK, where we expect the cheap wine on a restaurant’s list to be absolutely dire so order something from the middle of the list instead.

While there are exceptions to this rule, the number of you nodding your heads as you read this only confirm my point. My argument is only strengthened by the fact Decanter magazine ran an entire feature article this month on how to choose wine wisely – because we’ve all grown tired of being bamboozled once the cork is popped.

But in Rome, none of this seemed to matter. Whether I was buying by the bottle or the carafe, the cheap stuff or the ‘expensive’ stuff, not once did I whince after tasting a house wine, particularly when it was of the white variety.

This is down to two things. Either a) the wine at these Roman restaurants is of general higher quality than you find in your average establishment here in the UK, or b) it was so hot I simply didn’t care or notice what the wine was like as long as it was cold and refreshing.

Whether I was drinking Orvieto, Frascati, a suspiciously cheap and light Trebbiano from a one-litre bottle that surprised me and didn’t taste anything like paint thinner as I had anticipated, it seemed Rome’s restaurants were much better at executing cheap wine than the UK’s.

Perhaps there’s a good reason for this. Understanding Italy’s Byzantine wine universe is no small feat. Those of you who find French wine confusing enough have no chance when it comes to Italy. Whether you’re trying to make sense of Piedmont, Tuscany or Veneto, something new always enters the fray to muddy the waters.

Think you know exactly what is in your Barolo? Think again. The introduction of French grapes to a country with more great native grapes than it could ever need means what you think is being made from nebbiolo might, in fact, contain a little of something else.

Perhaps because of the utter confusion Italy’s wines cause the rest of us, its restaurateurs feel obliged to lend us a hand and provide us with something serviceable from all corners of their wine lists.

Of course, I have serious doubts about that last bit.

We shouldn’t have to feel like cheapskates when ordering house wine. When all we want is a decent glass of wine at a low price, why should we feel guilt for taking the affordable route? If only bars and restaurants would put some thought into this and stop serving us the worst chardonnay, sauvignon blanc or merlot they can find.

Photo: Freedigitalphotos.net

I met my heroes: Tasting Bordeaux’s 1998 vintage with European Fine Wines

You know how people say you should never meet your heroes because they might be all show but no personality?

Well, they were wrong.

Nothing of the sort happened at a tasting of wines from Bordeaux’s 1998 vintage organised by European Fine Wines last week, where I once and for all found myself face-to-bottle with some of the wines I revere the most: Haut-Brion, Cheval Blanc and Yquem. (Full disclosure: all of the wine at the tasting, for journalists and clients of EF Wines, was paid for by EF Wines.)

When Vim from the 12×75 blog (where I’m a contributing editor) arranged for me to attend, I wasn’t about to let anything get in the way of this opportunity (I even skipped a WSET class for the experience).

You see, I’ve been stalking these wines for years but have fallen short in my efforts to try them. Other priorities in life seem always to demand my money: rent, clothing, food, trips back to Canada to see my long-suffering family.

Until now.

So there we all were on the night, squeezing into dining rooms in London’s Nozomi restaurant, hugging glasses of Bollinger’s La Grande Année 2002 to start (the loan non-Bordelais wine) and clumsily scooping up sushi with chopsticks.

Note to self: Used chopsticks should not be stashed in the inside pocket of a suit jacket.

I must have been one of the most awkward-looking people there. In one hand I held a glass; in another, a notebook, pen and chopsticks, all of which required juggling every few moments depending on what I was doing. Sniffing and swirling one moment, scribbling in my pad another, then capturing a piece of sashimi when possible.

The wines on offer, covering the appellations of Pomerol, St Emilion, Graves and Sauternes, were a who’s who of some of the best chateaux in all of Bordeaux – without venturing into obscene price ranges.

The vintage in question – 1998 – was one that favoured merlot, so the outcome here is the St Emilions and Pomerols should perform better than their left bank counterparts. That said, vineyards in Graves (one of my favourite appellations), specifically Pessac-Leognan, fared better than those in the Médoc.

We started off with La Petite Eglise, the second wine of Clos l’Eglise in Pomerol. It was wonderful in its own right but lacking somehow. Once we moved up to Chateau l’Eglise Clinet’s grand vin, the thing lacking in the second wine became apparent – the flagship’s opulence. It just oozed ripe black fruits, integrated oak and great minerality.

And so the night went on and I winged my way blissfully through the wines, scribbling woeful notes and trying to post #7wordwinereviews to Twitter. Vim’s efforts were much more efficient than mine, to say the least.

Next up was the Haut-Brion and, I must confess, I went back for two more tries of this: the first poured from bottle and the second from decanter.

Many thought this wine, along with the Chateau Pape Clement, was hard, reserved, unready to be loved.

But out of the decanter it was much more alive, having shrugged off its tannic robe and revealed more fruit and personality. It expressed a hint of oak and cedar, boiled sweets and something medicinal.

The final four wines gained a great deal of praise and were the favourites for many. Chateau L’Evangile had aromas of a burnt match with fragrant fruit that was reminiscent of perfume.

But the one everybody raved about was the Cheateau Cheval Blanc. It was showing well, being expressive and fragrant, and judging by the number of people lining up for seconds, couldn’t have put a foot wrong.

It was the Chateau d’Yquem I was perhaps most excited to drink and, even though 1998 wasn’t necessarily its greatest vintage, it was still divine. Viscous and expressing aromas of honey, peaches and pears, I could have sipped this all night.

Afterward we tumbled into a Lebanese restaurant across the street for some food, which was wonderful, and we paired it with a wine from the Bekaa Valley, famous for its reds.

This was a blend of Bordeaux grapes and a splash of syrah. This was lively and fruity plus a little tannic; definitely a well-made wine we all enjoyed. At £40 per bottle it wasn’t cheap, but before you accuse the restaurant of applying a heavy markup to something that would normally cost about £9, I should say I spotted the 2008 vintage at Highbury Vinters recently for £27.50.