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.


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.




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


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.


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.

How to sound like you know about wine while having the sommelier decide for you instead

ID-100105602Some people think I know ‘a thing or two’ about wine. But what they don’t realise is what I don’t know about wine could probably fill the millions of bottles of Blossom Hill produced each year.

The fact about having a just little bit of knowledge about something is that all the things I don’t know about it become apparent when I’m in the company of those who truly know a lot about it – such as people who actually earn a living working in the wine business rather than those who blog about it incessantly, like yours truly.

Needless to say, I get by with what little I know about wine with a bit of luck and a lot of blagging. I suspect most people are doing this anyway, so it works out for the best one way or another.

So there I was the other week eyeing up the ravioli and Cote de Boeuf at London’s Bleeding Heart restaurant and sweating slightly after being given the task of choosing the wine for the my hosts.

In other words, for the two people who invited me to this lunch specifically because they like wine, they knew I liked wine and they knew they would like wine even more if they drank it with me at what happens to be one of London’s best restaurants.

It was a tall order. And even though I often head straight for the Bordeaux when steak is discussed, I’m also someone who wants to try something different. Lately I’ve been sizing up the offerings from the South of France, so my eyes instantly locked on to the Madiran.

Enter the restaurant’s sommelier, adorned with a bunch-of-grapes pin and a very French accent. Now, when you’re at a restaurant nice – or just expensive – enough to have a full-time sommelier, it can go one of two ways. Either he/she will be attentive, informative and helpful, guiding you to the right wines for the occasion and your tastes. Or he/she will do none of this and give you vague answers to all of your questions and say only positive things about the wines you’re considering.

Sometimes we get sommeliers who just want to please you by agreeing with everything you say. But the last thing we need is a sycophantic sommelier, someone who will only say positive things about your choices. Certainly not.

What I want – and need, because I really don’t know as much as I would like to pretend – is someone who will stop me making a massive gastronomic faux pas, a person who will be willing wedge his body between me and an awful bottle of wine that will make my Chateaubriand taste like a petrified cowboy boot.

So, in terms of the two kinds of sommeliers in the world (I accept there might be more than two), sometimes we get the former, sometimes we get the latter. On this occasion, I got the former, and I tried my utmost not to looked relieved in front of my hosts.

Standing before me was a man who, free from judgement on his face, said matter-of-factly that his Madiran was in a light style and probably wouldn’t give me the satisfaction I desired. How bout the red Pic St Loup, I asked? What you want, he said, is the Faugeres – and you will not be disappointed.

The Faugeres in question, Domaine de Cebene Les Bancels Les Faugeres 2010, was everything we were after. Spice, depth of character, a satisfying viscosity, plenty of black fruits and enough backbone to stand up to the obligatory slab of meat you eat when a person goes to the Bleeding Heart.

Like any good wine ought, it made me look like a hero. But in reality it was all a blag, a lucky result garnered from a helpful sommelier who knew what I was after and almost certainly saw how befuddled I had become when handed his tome of a wine list.

Castillon: Fashionably unfashionable

Castillon: it’s getting better and better

Sometimes this whole wine tasting lark opens my eyes to the fact even the most expensive bottles on show don’t necessarily lead to as much satisfaction as, say, that miracle find that cost me less than a tenner.

There I was the other week at the Laithwaite’s press tasting and then a dinner with the managing director of CA Grands Crus, alternating between fine wines from lust-worthy chateaux and reassuringly delicious offerings for midweek drinking.

At the Laithwaite’s event we rolled in at about 3 p.m. with every expectation of slowly working our way through everything they had on show – only to edit out large swathes of wine from the start. Turns out the doors were being shut at 5 p.m. and, given our tendency for non-stop childish banter between each taste, it was going to take several hours to work through the trove ahead of us.

More often than not I found immense satisfaction in wines that came with most price tags as opposed to the icons, giving me reassurance there is hope yet for the punter who can’t – or won’t – pay for the posh stuff.

One of my favourite wines was an affordable viognier in a sexy bottle that plunges from a wide base into an almost too-delicate neck, reminiscent of the new Bollinger Champagne vessel.

Now, I’m not going to say I don’t love expensive wines because that would be a) a lie and b) hypocritical since my cellar is littered with things that you will never see on a half-price offer at Tesco, let alone for sale in a supermarket.

Some of the most memorable drinks I’ve ever tasted have been Lafite, Haut-Brion, Cheval Blanc, Yquem and so on. The last thing I will do is tell you expensive wine isn’t any good, because so much of it is, in fact, really rather amazing. I would bathe in them if this was 1) in any way beneficial and 2) financially attainable.

But everyday life is not about drinking first growths. Not if you’re a journalist like me who earns less in a year than Bill Clinton is paid for a single after-dinner speech.

So with that rather sobering thought in mind, it is reassuring I can still find amazing value within my limited budget, the sort that makes you lean back in your chair with incredulity.

Enter Chateau Tertre de Belvés, a wine from the somewhat unfashionable but up-and-coming Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux appellation. This is the place where Tony Laithwaite has his vineyard and French winemaking base even though many of the snootier types turn their noses up at the appellation’s wines.

At the recent #7wordwinereview dinner, this was the wine I pulled out of my cellar to share with the group. It was bought two years ago from the Cafe a Vin at Le Comptoir de Genès, a restaurant/bar/market located a few minutes away from Castillon an one of my local hangouts when I’m in the area.

A few hours before the dinner I nearly decided to go to a shop to buy something different. I’m glad I didn’t, because it received more accolades than most wines that have ever been served at that table, and certainly more than anything I’ve brought in the past.

This bottle cost me no more than £10. But the first time my English friend and I tried it, at The Winemaker’s vineyard back in 2010, we knew it was good. The oak on the nose, the fruit on the palate. While not a perfect wine – it is a bit rough and ready and is missing a few things on the palate here and there – its value for money and rustic charm make it a hit.

And that is the whole point about wine appreciation. If a bottle can bring a smile to your face, it matters very little how much it cost.

Other Castillon wines worth a try:

How to miss the last train from East Dulwich after drinking too much organic wine

Anyone who lives in London has two concerns on a night out: whether they have to cross the river and whether or not the trains will be running late enough to return home easily.

Being one of those types who lives in North London, my nights out in the southern side of the city have only ever ended one of two ways: either very early so I can catch the final train home, or very late because I have  missed said train (Read: Christmas Eve 2007,  when I walked 12 miles home to Highbury from South Wimbledon).

But sometimes missing that final train home and having to string together a series of buses to reach your bed isn’t always a bad thing.This is exactly what happened following my trip to East Dulwich last week in order to try the food and wines at biodynamic and organic wine specialist Green & Blue Wines.

Now, I have to say I’m lucky enough to have great shops like Highbury Vintners and The Sampler on my doorstep, while English wine specialist Wine Pantry and a Laithwaites outlet are near my office.

I’ve always been polyamorous when it comes to wine shops, however, so I felt no sense of disloyalty making the trip down to East Dulwich after being invited there by Kate, the owner of this shop/restaurant/deli (full disclosure: this dinner and the wine were paid for by Green & Blue wines).

Organics are something I became well-acquainted with growing up on Canada’s west coast, where it was impossible not to have a concern for green issues given it’s an area known for tree huggers and ardent recyclers.

But shops like Green & Blue and all the others I buy from are a bit of a revelation for me.

You see, I grew up in British Columbia where, if I wanted to buy alcohol, I had three options. I could shop at the BC Liquor Store where the stock was dictated by what would make an easy sell at each location, at a cold beer and wine store attached to a pub, or at a VQA wine shop, which sold only specialist wines made in Canada.

So there I was in East Dulwich trying to find my way to Green & Blue. This isn’t a place you’ll have trouble finding. Situated in the middle of the high street, it occupies the width of two storefronts and is painted in a bright, lime green. If the objective was to be noticed, Kate scores full points here.

Now, to the food and the wine.

One thing I love is the idea of merging a wine merchant with a restaurant. This is something I admire about St John Bar and Restaurant, and have noticed popping up among other retailers. If you can do it well, it’s a fantastic plan.

This was the menu for the evening:

  • Roast summer vegetable salad with goat’s curd
  • Sardines with chilli, garlic and dill
  • Slow roast shoulder of lamb with vegetable ragout
  • Dark Chocolate Pot (served with fino sherry)

Forgive me now while I say very quickly the food was superb (and I really do mean it was fantastic and I would recommend it to everyone) so I can move on to the wine.

First up, Domaine Jean Maupertuis Petillant Pink Bulles. This is made from gamay grapes, comes from the Loire and is really just a simple and fun sparkling wine. There isn’t much complexity here; fizz and a medium-sweet flavour dominates. There is some nuttiness, strawberries and lots of fruits, but overall it isn’t a complex wine. This is something to drink very cold on the patio when the sun is shining.

With our starter and the sardines I opted for the next wine on offer, a rosé from Rousillon. This was the Les Casot de Mailloles Canta Manana Rose 2010. Unfortunately this wasn’t showing at its best, but it was very perfumed with a lot of floral tones and red fruits. On first whiff it had the odour of a hair salon, which didn’t go over well, but I have to say it matched nicely with the food. I wouldn’t say I was totally in love with this wine, but I’d be willing to try it again to reassess.

The wine to accompany the lamb shoulder was a very lightly fizzed Vittorio Bera Barbera Monferrato ‘Le Verrane’, which had that classic barbera flavour of cherries and berries, plus the acidic backbone to stand up to the meat. While the slight fizz is common to many Italian wines, I have to say I’d prefer it was completely still, but it was a good wine and definitely worth a try if you haven’t had this style before.

Once we’d made it past these three bottles, I lost track of everything else that was going on. Another bottle of red came out, but sadly I have no photo of it or even a note to tell me what it was like. Events became a blur.

Then when the pudding came out we had a glass of fino sherry to accompany it, but again there is no photographic evidence to back it up. What I do know is fino and dark chocolate can go together nicely even if you think it is all wrong, although I found it better to have a few sips of it rather than a full glass, otherwise the dryness of the sherry overwhelms the palate.

Not only did I lose track of what we were drinking, but I also lost track of time entirely. By the time I’d hunted down and bought a bottle of Qupé Central Coast Syrah 2009 from Kate and walked out the door, it was midnight. And apparently at midnight in East Dulwich it is impossible to catch a train back to London Bridge, which meant I had to wait 15 minutes for a bus to take me north of the Thames, from where I caught another bus home.

By the time I got to bed, it was 1:30 a.m.