A weekend in La Clape – Part 2: Highlights from the Gerard Bertrand portfolio

dsc_0242.jpgSo despite being led astray by my SatNav and taking a detour through every village in the Languedoc, eventually we made it to Chateau l’Hospitalet. Never mind that we were two hours later than anticipated, arriving long after the sun had gone down.

Last time I visited Chateau l’Hospitalet, the weather was practically inhospitable. A relentless, icy wind blew for the length of the weekend, worsened by bouts of driving rain that made any trip into the outdoors about as attractive as shopping on Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon.

Thankfully this year the conditions were much more becoming of southern France. On Saturday morning we awoke to relative tranquillity. No gale-force winds or sideways rain. Which is a good thing for an event centred on vine pruning and watching a fluffy brown dog sniff out truffles.

Anyway. The dogs I can discuss in another post. Today we’re here to discuss the primary reason for visiting Gerard Bertrand’s flagship estate: his portfolio of fine wine.

Just prior to lunch on a Saturday morning we sat down for a tasting of 10 wines from the Gerard Bertrand portfolio representing a broad cross-section of properties and styles in the region. The intention was to showcase the release of new vintages, 2014 for the white wines and 2013 for the red wines. Here are my thoughts. The first four wines are white (in green text), the other six are red wines (in red text).

Chateau La Sauvageonne Grand Vin 2014
A blend of grenache blanc, vermentino and viognier. Medium lemon in colour with stone fruits, peaches and marmalade on the nose, as well as vanilla. In the mouth, it has a lush feel with further stone fruits and a creamy quality, with an element of minerality to balance things. Quite forward on the nose but very enjoyable.

Chateau l’Hospitalet Grand Vin 2014
A blend of roussanne, vermentino, viognier and bourboulenc. More restrained on the nose when compared with the Sauvageonne blanc. This is very clearly a roussane/viognier blend given its aroma, with citrus, stone fruits and hints of oak coming through. Medium body, it offers up further stone fruits in the mouth and has a long finish. Very good now but will clearly improve.

Aigle Royal Chardonnay Limoux 2014
A 100% chardonnay originating from Roquetaillade, the fermentation begins in vat and is then transferred to new barrels at the mid-fermentation stage. Light lemon in colour, this wine has restrained aromas of peaches, citrus and oak. With a creamy mouthfeel due to barrel fermentation, this wine is delicate on the one hand but with substantial power in the background. Very good.

Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2014
A blend of chardonnay, viognier and sauvignon blanc from Bizanet. This comes from a biodynamic vineyard where 70% of the wine is fermented in new barrels and 30% in steel vats. Malolactic fermentation is performed on some of the barrels. This wine has beautiful aromas of peaches, cream, vanilla and marmalade, with a distinct banana characteristic as well. In the mouth, further citrus and peaches come through. Very, very good.

Chateau La Sauvageonne Grand Vin 2013
A blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre and carignan. Deep ruby red with black fruits (blackberries, plums, black cherries, blueberries) on the nose, with hints of strawberries and black currants. On the palate there are more black fruits with a good backbone of tannin and acidity. This is a classic grenache/syrah blend with good fruit and is not too overpowering. Good.

Chateau l’Hospitalet Grand Vin 2013
Always a favourite of mine, the 2013 vintage of Chateau l’Hospitalet’s Grand Vin — or any other Languedoc wine for that matter — is truly worth seeking out. A blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre, this wine is aged in new barrels for 12 months with periodic stirring of the lees. This wine is deep in colour with dense aromas of black fruits. Still young and restrained, it is possible to pick up the hallmarks of this style: black fruit, garrigue, herbs and a distinct aroma of olives. With good acidity and tannin, this wine will age well. Very, very good.

Chateau de Villemajou Grand Vin 2013
Another favourite, this is a blend consisting of carignan, syrah, grenache and mourvedre where the carignan and syrah are vinified in whole bunches with carbonic maceration for 10 to 18 days, while the grenache and mourvedre are vinified in the traditional manner after de-stemming, with maceration of 15 to 20 days. Deep ruby red in colour, this has beautiful aromas of black fruits, blueberries, black currants, cherries and violets. in the mouth there is yet more black fruit with undertones of red fruits. This is very clearly a Corbieres wine with quite a bit of power without being heavy. Very, very good.

Aigle Royal Pinot Noir 2013
A 100% pinot noir wine from Roquetaillade, the grapes are de-stemmed completely before fermentation, with the wine ages in French oak for 10 to 12 months, where it undergoes malolactic fermentation. Light rub red in colour and offering up vibrant aromas of red berries, spices and vanilla, as well as strawberries and red currants. This has a  delicate feel in the mouth, with good acidity and a tannic backbone to give it ageing potential. Very good.

Cigalus Aude Hautervie Rouge 2013
A blend of an incredible seven different grapes (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, grenache, carignan and caladoc), this comes from a biodynamic vineyard where the syrah and carignan are vinified separately in whole bunches, while the rest of the grapes are de-stemmed and vinified in what they describe as the traditional way. A deep, dark ruby red colour, this has an intense, brooding nose of black fruits (prunes, plums, black currants), while in the mouth it offers of strong acidity and tannin with more layers of complex black fruits and a dash of vanilla. Full bodied, this is a powerful wine with plenty of life ahead of it. Very, very good.

Le Viala Minervois La Liviniere 2013
A blend of syrah, grenache and carignan, Le Viala comes from a small parcel of land at Chateau Laville Bertrous. The grapes are thoroughly sorted prior to fermentation, with the carignan and syrah transferred to the vats in whole bunches where they undergo carbonic maceration, while the grenache is de-stemmed and left for a traditional maceration for three weeks. Deep ruby red, this has complex aromas of garrigue, olives, herbs and black fruits. It is very much a Minervois, but of a fine quality, with black fruits and solid acidity in the mouth. It’s quite weighty but well-rounded with plenty of tannins to give it a long life. Very, very good and among the finer wines of the region.

 

 

 

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M&S re-imagines the Oregon Treaty

meyer-vineyards-2Just when you thought Canada has finally established itself on the global wine map, something crops up that makes it abundantly clear that there is still a long way to go.

As the price tag in the photo shows, it seems that not even Marks & Spencer is aware that Canada is a sovereign wine-producing nation – even though Canadian wine is nothing new for the retailer.

Despite a bottle that clearly states the wine’s origins — British Columbia, Canada — someone in the M&S machine decided to print a run of shelf tags that declare this Meyer Family Vineyards Pinot Noir as a product of the USA.

Perhaps the powers-that-be at M&S have decided that the Oregon Treaty of 1846 had a more disastrous outcome for the British, placing the Canada-USA border much further north than its current path along the 49th parallel.

How else could they have confused a wine from Canada’s Okanagan Valley  as being from the USA?

The wine in question is Meyer Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Oakanagan Valley 2014, which sells for £18.99 per bottle here in the UK.

Back in September this year when I visited the Meyer Family Vineyards winery in Okanagan Falls, British Columbia, it was, as far as I could tell, still on the Canadian side of the border. Unless something went drastically wrong between then and now, I believe this is still the case. It’s also fairly unlikely that the Americans mounted an opportunistic land grab during the recent election campaign.

wpid-dsc_0068.jpgView from the Meyer tasting room

Along with several other wines, I was able to taste the 2013 vintage of the Meyer Family Vineyards Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir, their entry-level version of this varietal wine. I can’t say for sure if the wine made for Marks & Spencer is made in the same way as the one sold in their home market, but these were my observations:

Meyer Family Vineyards Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir 2014

On the nose it has aromas of red berries, boiled sweets, forest floor and mushrooms along with brambly, spicy notes. Aged in older barrels with no new oak, this has plenty of red berries on palate with medium acidity. It is not one bit astringent, which is a characteristic that can plagues other entry-level pinots. Very enjoyable. — September 2015

Sticker shock: Worthy pinot noir for less than £20

wpid-dsc_0662.jpgFinding decent pinot noir for a decent price has become a nearly impossible quest that is akin to finding an affordable apartment in central London that isn’t simply a converted attic with a camp stove in the corner.

Pinot noir is one of those wines that can stop you in your tracks when you taste it. At its best, it is complex and profound, causing you to take more time to enjoy layer upon layer of flavour. At its worst, it can prompt your gag reflex.

Notoriously difficult to get right, pinot noir isn’t one of those wines that can be made in large volumes successfully. Thin-skinned, prone to rot and demanding care and attention throughout the growing season and in the winery, this is a wine that you don’t want to buy from Romania for £2 a bottle. And despite what some people might say, you probably don’t want anything from New Zealand’s Marlborough region for less than £10 a bottle these days either. Note that in California, the volume producers have steered clear of pinot noir for the most part. While Charles Shaw — AKA Two Buck Chuck — can pull off cheap chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, among other varietal wines, they stopped short of jumping on the pinot noir bandwagon. That was a wise decision.

Where, then, do we find affordable, drinkable pinot noir? New Zealand’s Marlborough region is increasingly turning out impressive examples.

While Central Otago to the south and Martinborough to the north are coveted for the quality of their pinot, the price can often be a bit of a shocker. Marlborough, perhaps best known for its unique style of sauvignon blanc, has been producing pinot noir for quite some time. Even though they tend to be cheaper than those from Otago, they can be frustratingly acidic, one-dimensional and unappetising. Think Brancott, Oyster Bay and any other supermarket brand for that matter.

There are some great examples of Marlborough pinot, however. The likes of Dog Point and Cloudy Bay, and the better offerings from Seresin, all produce fine pinots but their per-bottle prices are north of £20 and are often closer to £30. Pegasus Bay, in the Canterbury region, also makes a great pinot noir, but again the price is around £25 per bottle.

The question is, can we find an enjoyable pinot noir with layers of complexity with a price somewhere between the forgettable supermarket brands and top-end juggernauts? I think we might.

For several months I have been visiting the Leadenhall Market location of Amathus Drinks and eyeing up its selection of wines from Marlborough’s Domaine Georges Michel with curiosity and suspicion. Curious, because it is a producer unknown to me. Suspicious, because little has been written about them in the UK.

Further suspicion comes from the price. The company’s mid-range pinot noir, Domaine Georges Michel La Reserve Pinot Noir 2010, is listed at £22.51 per bottle on the Amathus website, placing it firmly in the more expensive category of Kiwi pinot. But in the shop it is selling for £16.85. While not cheap for the everyday wine drinker on the street, if it’s good, it could be a steal.

On first pour, the wine is pale but not watery, with complex aromas of cherries, plums, currants, mushrooms, oak, brambly fruits and savoury, earthy notes. On the palate it has that classic smoothness of a well-made Kiwi pinot, with a dash of muscle while also having a great deal of French-influenced finesse. Plenty of cherries and fruit backed by more layers of savoury notes and smooth tannins. At five years old, this wine has benefited from some bottle age and is clearly made in a more Burgundian style but clearly has New Zealand as its origin.

For the price, this wine outclasses many that have cost twice as much (Cuvaison from California coming immediately to mind). It might be too early to suggest that it is in the same league as some of its more famous Marlborough neighbours, so let’s hope that the price stays put.

 

B.C. pinot noir: Apparently it is award-winning

Good news, everyone. A wine from British Columbia has been declared ‘best in the world.’ Yes, you read that right — the world. And not just any wine, but the most challenging of them all, the heartbreak grape, pinot noir.

Think I’m pulling your leg? If the Vancouver Sun says it is so, it must be true. And if Decanter hands out the award, well it really must be true.

There it is in the headline:

Mission Hill wins world’s best pinot noir award

Need any more convincing? Here’s a screen grab:

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That’s a bold statement, isn’t it? Best pinot noir. In the world. Ah, but when we get to the story’s lead line, we are — thankfully — given the qualifying statement:

Mission Hill Family Estate has won ‘World’s Best Pinot Noir’ in the under £15 category at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Oh. Well that’s a bit different, isn’t it? So, with that nugget of information out of the way, let’s move on to the next sentence:

Considered the world’s leading international competition, the stunning win puts B.C.’s Okanagan Valley on the world pinot noir map.

In the past, Canadian wine was reviled. But with any luck, it will soon be revered. Perhaps Canadian winemakers can do a better job with pinot noir than our various national ice hockey teams have been at winning recent world championships.

Anyway, to the more boring part of the article; the bit where I drone on about wine I have tasted.

For years, I had always wondered what all the fuss was with pinot noir. When I first saw the film Sideways, I was intrigued by it for sure, but when I travelled around Santa Barbara County tasting the wine, I wasn’t exactly sold. In fact, I was more taken by the syrah on offer. Perhaps my palate needed time to mature.

This is probably not the sort of thing I should confess given the bottle that got me into wine in the first place was, in fact, a pinot noir from WillaKenzie in Oregon.

But back in June, during a tour of vineyards in my home province of B.C., I began to notice that the pinot noir was actually pretty good. This was a new one for me.

So what did I find? Good pinot noir is available all over the valley, but I couldn’t taste it all. The highlights from my small selection came from Nk’Mip Cellars, Quails’ Gate, La Frenz and Tantalus, although this is by no means an exhaustive list.

The styles vary dramatically. Nk’Mip, which I covered in a previous blog entry, offered a basic pinot and a reserve, the former being more delicate and the latter being more Burgundian and woody. Both are good and worth buying.

However, La Frenz and Tantalus were the two big surprises for me.

La Frenz is a winery I didn’t know before I visited, but its rich pinot won me over and reminded me of the sort you would find in New Zealand’s Central Otago region. Located on the Naramata Bench north of the town of Penticton, La Frenz is in a vineyard area that is earning a reputation for good pinot.

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The La Frenz Reserve Pinot Noir 2011 is earthy, very New World and powerful, but with plenty of red fruits, some blackberries and a tannic kick. This is very New World but is also an homage to Burgundy with its woody notes. This was one of my favourites and, while it was powerful and could use some years to mature, it was balanced with dryness, acidity and tannins, so it didn’t have that annoying fruit-bomb characteristic that is found elsewhere.

IMG_0249The view of Lake Okanagan from the La Frenz tasting room

At Quails’ Gate, the operation is bigger, slicker and more commercially minded, but that doesn’t mean the quality of the wine is any lesser. This is a vineyard that makes good rieslings, chardonnays and pinot noirs, as well as a more curious variety called foch. Before you conclude that foch is a lesser wine, try the Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch or the premium Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Old Vines Foch. You might find it surprising.

IMG_0251Quails’ Gate tasting room

As for the pinot, again, there is quality here. The basic Quails’ Gate Pinot Noir 2011 seemed to offer some of the best value in the Okanagan. With bright red cherry flavours, medium tannins and medium acidity, it is correct to the variety. Meanwhile, the Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2011 was a bigger wine. A very deep red colour with oaky aromas, medium tannins and a long finish, this had lots of bright red fruits and was very enjoyable.

IMG_0252Rows of vines outside the Quails’ Gate tasting room

And finally, to Tantalus. Now this is a winery that produces some satisfying wine. Best known for its incredible rieslings, its pinot noir is just starting to find its legs.

IMG_0261The Tantalus tasting room has impressive aesthetics

When I visited the vineyard, we had the opportunity misfortune to witness an event that all growers dread: a hailstorm.

This is what a hailstorm looks like from the windows of a tasting room:

IMG_0265Those clouds bring hail…

Okay, so you can’t see much other than dark clouds, but I assure you the looks on the employees’ faces was anything but happiness at that moment.

I simply loved the wines at Tantalus. This 40 acre estate produces mainly riesling and pinot noir, although they also have some chardonnay and even a syrah icewine.

The riesling is the showstopper at this estate. Made in a dry and an off-dry style, it could very well be the best riesling to come out of B.C. (more of which at another time).

But the big surprise was the Tantalus Pinot Noir 2010. Made from fruit harvested from young vines as well as older spätburgunder vines, this is a delicate, supple pinot noir with a good dose of acidity and tart red fruits. It isn’t yet polished as wines go, but there is real elegance here. Matured in 100% new French oak, there is something of a pine or cedar aroma to go along with the fruit. This has plenty of balance but still needs time in bottle.

IMG_0264Rugged Okanagan scenery as viewed from the Tantalus tasting room

And that Mission Hill pinot noir that won the Decanter award? I still haven’t tried it.

Incomprehensible vineyard name: Nk’Mip Cellars

Wine could very well be one of the few products that can have a confusing name and still sell well.

This goes against the ethos of most branding experts. Our supermarkets and department stores are bursting with products whose creators went to great lengths to find the easiest, most recognisable names. Nike. Arm & Hammer. Apple. Google. Tesco. You get me.

But look at most French, Italian or Spanish wines. Unless you are fluent in all three of those languages, there is a strong chance you have been flummoxed by a winery name, the name of the wine itself, the name of the region where it came from or the name of the grape used to make the wine. And if you hit the jackpot, you were confused by the lot.

Yet you still bought it. Why? Because it’s wine. Because no one can pronounce most Italian words anyway. Because no one really knows where the Cotes de Blaye appellation is but they know it’s probably drinkable. And that’s all that matters.

Now, for us Anglophones you would have thought most of the English-speaking New World would offer us a welcome respite from the confusion all those foreign labels have created.

Then the Canadians come along and decide to screw with our minds…

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Ignore my bald head for a moment and focus on the sign in the background.

Nk’Mip.

Now try to pronounce it. Think you got it right? Probably not.

It goes like this: In-ka-meep.

Nk’Mip is a First Nations word from the Okanagan language that means ‘bottomland’ and refers to the area where British Columbia’s Okanagan River flows into the north end of Osyoos Lake (where you’ll also find the town of Osoyoos). Founded by the Osoyoos Indian Band, Nk’Mip Cellars was the first aboriginal-owned and operated winery in North America. And they’re no slouches. The winery is part of the greater Nk’Mip resort project, which includes a golf course, resort and spa, as well as a desert cultural centre. It’s a serious business.

The winery/cellar door is in a modern building that on one hand is impressive and new, but on the other seems a little soulless:

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But there’s no denying that this is in a beautiful setting. Here we see the rolling hills just outside Osoyoos:

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And here we see views of Osoyoos Lake from the winery looking over the vineyards:

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Like any good winery, they have a restaurant and patio. It turns out this is how you make big money in wine country:

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Not to be outdone, their tasting room is large and spacious. And if you’ve ever watched Sideways or been to Santa Barbara County, you might find it to be in the same spirit as the Fess Parker winery (known as Frass Canyon in the film), complete with cheesy souvenirs that fit in with the vineyard’s theme:

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Yes, that’s me looking a little bit lost in the cavernous tasting room:

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Now to the wine. I managed to work my way through quite a few of Nk’Mip’s wines and overall I found them to be fairly pleasing. They arguably make the best chardonnay in Canada and, being that it’s the only wine of theirs I’ve actually bought and dragged back to London with me, you could say it gets my seal of approval. It is Burgundian in style but not too oaky or flabby like so many New World examples.

Anyway, to the tasting notes, which had to be fished out of my recycling bin a few weeks ago. If the little stars that I drew on my tasting sheet are to be trusted, I was particularly fond of the winery’s Winemakers Series Riesling 2011 and Chardonnay 2011, as well as the Qwam Qwmt Series (Kwem Kwimt) Chardonnay 210, Pinot Noir 2010, Syrah 2008 and Meritage 2008.

The Winemakers Series Riesling 2011 is from their basic range of wines and sells for $17.99 Canadian. But it isn’t a slouch. It has a classic gasoline/petrol nose, has plenty of citrus and has a grassy, chalky palate with a pleasing minerality. For the price, you probably can’t go wrong, although I accept that there might be better examples from Australia and of course Germany and Austria – albeit for more money.

The basic Chardonnay 2011 is predominantly aged in steel (60%) but it also sees (40%) French oak to give it some much-needed depth. It had hints of vanilla from the oak, was medium-bodied and also had a mild creaminess. Not at all bad for the price, but it left me wanting more.

My favourite wine of the tasting might have been the Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay 2010 ($24.99). This sees 10 months of new French oak and extended ageing on the lees. It is a nutty wine of medium body and acidity with just enough hints of vanilla to be pleasing without going overboard. I found it to be aromatic, full of citrus fruits and minerality, as well as a long-lasting finish.

Other wines on offer included a fabulous Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir 2010 ($29.99) that reminded me of a pinot from New Zealand’s Central Otago region. Plenty of red berries, mild oak, caramel, along spices and earthiness. It was quite a bold pinot, but also enjoyable.

The Qwam Qwmt Syrah 2008 was also a top wine and, if I’m not mistaken, earns high scores from critics. It seemed reductive on the nose, but I could have just been imagining things. It displayed the classic pepper and spice you’d expect from a syrah, but also seemed to have some sort of scent of tree sap or pine, which many people in the Oakanagan believe is a characteristic of some wines there. Whether or not this is truth or fiction remains to be seen.

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?