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.

Tesco Vintage Claret: You couldn’t pay me to drink it

Swpid-dsc_0378.jpgo it seems bloggers across the UK’s interweb have landed themselves in hot water for taking cash bungs in exchange for promoting products to their loyal followers. Sure, it seems innocent on the face of it. A glowing endorsement for Oreos here, a plug for cosmetics there. All fine and dandy were it not for the fact that the bloggers were willing participants in a sophisticated advertising campaign, handing over their credibility in exchange for a small cash sum.

Wine bloggers and professional wine writers alike receive a great deal of sample bottles, but seldom do they come with strings attached. An envelope of cash to ensure a positive review? It would set Twitter alight.

Of course, in the wine world the forces of supply and demand play a role in preventing the sort of unscrupulous promotional activity that the Oreo biscuit people embarked upon. Simply put, the truly fine wines have no need for such low-brow marketing activities, while the large, generic wine brands (those named after shoeless appendages and water falling over a cliff) wouldn’t be fooling anyone if suddenly a wave of bloggers sung their praises.

Besides, you couldn’t pay me to drink most of this stuff. Take, for example, anything found in the lower reaches of the Tesco wine aisle. For there, wallowing down near your shins, hiding beneath the shelf in the blur of your peripheral vision, are bottles of wine that, if they could talk, might go some way to explaining why Tesco has found itself in so much trouble lately.

Tesco’s Vintage Claret 2013 stares up from that bottom shelf with all the promise and potential that any serious tight wine drinker would expect. But this isn’t made in the image of Berry Bros Good Ordinary Claret, which for £9 a bottle is actually good and could be passed off as something much more expensive when served alongside dinner with the in-laws.

For £4.99, this wine almost spites you for paying £4.01 less for the bottle. It has a nose reminiscent of halitosis. It tastes of bruise plums mixed with rough vodka. And the combination of the wine’s acidity and unexpected tannic finish gives you the impression that as you swallow, your gums are being stripped out of your jaw.

Yes, it is not yet December 31, but I feel confident in saying that this is the worst wine I will drink this year. Even with the Christmas party season still to be endured, it is unlikely that anything else could match this bottle’s character, which can only be described as sheer disdain for the pleasure that is drinking wine.

It does have one positive, though: its finish is mercifully short. The entire experience is over almost as soon as it began.

But it’s not all bad down there on the bottom four shelves. Earlier this year, I wrote about Les Dauphins Cotes du Rhone Villages, describing it as being:

Nothing wrong with it…if you don’t mind red wine that is watery, lacking in any real flavour and encourages you to rinse out your mouth with drain cleaner.

On another one of those occasions when I was trawling the lower reaches of Tesco’s desperate wine section, wondering what the local wine merchant would think if he caught me in the act, I spotted a familiar and potentially stomach-churning.

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But this wasn’t the rough village version that nearly cleared the room. This wasn’t the usually Les Dauphins Cotes due Rhone Villages  that cost me £6.49 at the time.

This was Les Dauphins Cote du Rhone Reserve.

Having only just managed to smooth over relations with my girlfriend after the fiasco that was Le Dauphins round one, I was tempting fate with this one. And at £5.75 on sale, there was a good chance that it would turn out to be truly awful. Could that be possible? Well there was only one way to find out, I thought.

On the sniff, the thing that caught my attention was that it didn’t make me recoil. Spices, not white spirits, I thought. It was light, but not lighter fluid. Obviously a Cotes du Rhone, with suggestions of pepper, garrigue and red fruits. Not overly complex, but how much complexity comes in a bottle of wine costing less than £6? At this price, the measure of success is whether or not I am willing to pour another glass. Unlike the Vintage Claret, I could actually drink this without doing permanent damage to my digestive system. For the price of a pub sandwich, you’re at least getting fair value for money.

But still, you couldn’t pay me to drink it.

Wine tastings: Everyone for themselves

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In theory, the wine tasting is a wine lover’s utopia; dozens of bottles of (potentially) great wine free for the taking. So when an invitation arrives on my doorstep asking if I’ll attend this tasting or that, turning it down would be a sign of insanity, surely?

Well, yes. And, well, no.

The decision to go to any wine tasting is often made under the assumption, and anticipation, of how good it is going to be. Endless tastes of wine! Fine Bordeaux, Burgundy and everything else! Every sip a winner!

And so along I go, effervescent with excitement.

Seldom, if ever, does the mind consider the reality of many big public tastings:  a room of punters packed in tighter than the Northern line at rush hour. The Lingering Larrys who hover over the bottles, preventing anyone else from receiving a sample. And then there is that inevitable crowd of people who arrived drenched in a fog of cologne.

So what do I do? As a newly anointed British citizen, I do what everyone else in my adopted home does: I tut and mutter under my breath.

I have learned, over time, that there is a critical mass for wine tastings. Too few people and it can be sparse and awkward, particularly if a proprietor keeps hovering over your left shoulder, curious to know what you think following every sip. Too many people and it can seem as though you’ve waited 10 minutes just for a thimble full of wine (the retailers Naked and Virgin spring to mind).

A wine tasting needs to be just the right size. One in which you can lose yourself in the crowd but not feel as though you’ve waited so long for a sip that when you return home you’ll find your children have grown up and left for university.

The reason I write about this is because there is one tasting that I’ve been meaning to write about for more than a month now. Back in September I found myself at the Berry Bros & Rudd Wine Club tasting, held — where else? — in the Long Room at Lord’s Cricket Ground. It was a warm evening, the room looked onto the pitch and the late-summer breeze could be felt through the open windows. It was a very Berry’s crowd, too, which meant that my Canadian twang and lack of red trousers almost certainly marked me as an outsider. But no matter.

The list of wines was generous — 24 in all — and the group was big but not heaving. Perfect.

A British wine critics recently said that there is no venue better for a wine tasting than Lord’s Cricket Ground. I would tend to agree, even if it means my journey home is slightly convoluted.

And so what of this tasting? Much to my long-suffering girlfriend’s chagrin, this was one where I wrote detailed notes for each wine. I loved the Old World white wines, from the Le Caillou Blanc de Chateau Talbot 2012 (grassy, light and floral with a hint of caramel) to  the Bianco dei Colli Della Toscana Comitale 2013 (bright flavours of lychee and passion fruit with wet stones).

Then there were the Old World reds, such as the Domaine Jean Fournier Marsannay Clos du Roy 2011 (brambly fruits with a great mid-palate and a long finish) that ticked nearly every box for a good pinot noir, or the Celler de Capcanes Cabrida Garnatxa Vinyes Velles 2009 (deep, dark, black fruits with notes of cedar and a broody complexity) that showed how much great wine can be found in Spain.

Perhaps the most interesting wine on tasting was Chile’s Bodegas RE Chardonnoir 2012. This is a white wine made from 60% chardonnay and 40% pinot noir that smells like a Champagne, giving off nutty aromas of yeast and biscuits as a result of spending two years on its lees, while the mouth is lush and full, offering subtle hints of oak and a well-rounded finish.

These were but a few of the two-dozen wines around the room. And even though I didn’t like everything I tried (the Santa Celina Torrontes 2011 and Mullineux Kloof Street Chenin Blanc 2013 both left me wanting), I walked away happy in the knowledge that I found at least six that I loved without having to partake in a rugby scrum to try them.

Wine investing: Time out of the market

It’s time in the market that counts the most when trying to make a decent return on an investment, the experts say. This may very well work for equities and bonds, but when it comes to wine I’m inclined to say that not being in the market at all has been one of my best investment decisions to date.

If anything, I consider it redemption following my decision several years back to invest in a gold mining fund at a time when it was near its peak. One quickly learns the phrase ‘throwing good money after bad’ when faced with losses that exceed your age by a distressingly wide margin.

Considering that during my day job I’ve spent much of this week observing a bit of a meltdown (I’m sure I’ll eat my words over this) in the world’s financial markets, I decided that it might be fun to see how bad equity investors have fared compared to wine investors.

(Coincidentally, over at Sediment Blog there was also a feature on investing in wine this week, but you can rest assured that their piece is much more entertaining than mine and, mercifully, does not contain any charts.)

With my financial hat on, I decided to pull up some charts using data from Wine Owners and take a closer look at the situation.

The nifty chart below shows the performance of the S&P 500 (green line), FTSE 100 (orange line) and Wine Owners First Growth Index (blue line) in the three years to 4 October 2014 (the latest date for wine data). In terms of recent wine investment performance, it speaks volumes about how the market has responded to those over-inflated en primeur campaigns in recent years.

chart (2)Source: Wine Owners as at 10/10/2014

What we see here is a three-year loss in the region of 25% for investment-grade Bordeaux wine. This is in contrast to the approximate 18% gain for the FTSE 100 and 56% rise for the S&p 500.

I know where I’d rather have my cash socked away. And I know what I’d rather be doing with my wine: drinking it.

Of course, a little perspective does help with things and, as everyone knows, wine investment stretches beyond just three years. So here are the same indices over a five-year period.

chart (3)

 Source: Wine Owners as at 10/10/2014

Things still aren’t looking good for wine then.

See that little peak in the blue line? That looks eerily similar to the point at which I invested in that gold mining fund all those years ago. Lo, I have learned much of these many passing years.

But what if we looked at the data in a way that made it tell an entirely different story?

Thanks to the benefits of hindsight, we can all look back into the past and find a chart that will make us want to kick ourselves for not wagering everything on Lafite and Latour.

Like this chart, for example, which shows the performance of those same three indices between 31 January 2007 and 4 October 2014.

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 Source: Wine Owners as at 10/10/2014

Thanks to its lower correlation to global markets during the financial crisis of 2008 (millionaires cut staff but not wine budgets, perhaps?) wine has grown by 110% compared to the rather weedy 5% for the FTSE 100 (not including the most recent meltdown) and the slightly more respectable 37.7% return for the S&P 500.

[EDIT: While wine had a ‘lower’ correlation to global markets, this does not mean it is not correlated. Indeed, a longer-term perspective of wine investment performance shows that wine is still correlated to global economic events and has experienced its own downturns during times of market pressure. Moreover, as an asset class it is not immune to peaks and troughs, and the value of wine can go down as well as up.]

So what does this tell us? Well, if you’re an equity investor who has been sweating bullets this week as markets around the world have dipped, rest assured that you’ve done better in the past few years than someone who invested in wine.

If you’re a wine investor lamenting your losses, hold in there and hope for the best. I’ll be sure not to tell you about how cheaply I’ve been buying 2010 Bordeaux lately.

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.

Pichon-Baron: When growing old isn’t so bad

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Growing old, while a bit of a bummer when your knees give out and your bowels begin to misbehave, has a few advantages.

For instance, the things that might have embarrassed us when we were young no longer matter. We’ve not only given up on vanity, but we’ve given up caring what other people think.

Once you are north of a certain age, you have decided that everyone else in the world is crazy (because we’re never the crazy ones, are we?) and any love interest you meet now has probably just settled for you. But that’s okay.

They say everything improves with age like a fine wine, but I’ve never really bought that theory.

This is because only the best wines improve with age. When it comes to people, well we don’t so much improve with age, we just learn to love live with our quirks and foibles – and those of others.

If we’re lucky, we can use this knowledge to our advantage, such as attracting women who find it endearing when, say, you fall over comically on the bus after one too many glasses of Sauternes (I still haven’t perfected this, but I’m sure it will work for me some day).

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This was all front of mind the other night when I donned my wine geek’s hat at a wine tasting held by Axa Investment Managers for members of the finance press.

You see, Axa, French insurance giant, also owns Axa Millésimes. Which owns Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron (and many more). And I’ve been dying to try it.

On this occasion we tasted Chateau Suduiraut 2006; Suduiraut’s dry white, S de Suduiraut 2011; Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron 2004; Les Tourelles de Longueville 2010, the second wine of Pichon-Baron; Chateau Pibran 2007; and Disznókö Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2007.

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This tasting was a lesson in the virtues of growing a bit older, even if the wines themselves were relative babies. While we had the younger 2010 and 2007 vintage, it was the 2004 – not considered a spectacular growing year – that impressed.

So here’s the boring, wine bore part of this post. This was a tasting that offered so much of what I loved. The S de Suduiraut was a little oaky, loaded with citrus and grapefruit, as well as being waxy and rounded. I could see myself sipping this on a sunny patio in Bordeaux or, more likely, in front of my television watching Food & Drink or something equally banal.

From here we moved on to the red wines. First was Les Tourelles de Longueville 2010. Obviously this is the baby Pichon, but it was deep and brooding, a heavy wine full of dark fruits, oak, liquorice and caramel. It’s a good candidate for decanting.

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Next we skipped back three years to Chateau Pibran 2007, which was again very deep in colour, starting to show a bit of age at the rim but still youthful and classic cabernet through and through. Lots of toasty oak, a vegetal nose, green peppers with plenty of tannin and dark fruits.

Now, one of my favourite wines, Chateau Tertre de Belves, comes from this 2007. Granted, the Belves is cheap and cheerful, loaded full of rustic charm and comes from the do-whatever-we-like region of Castillon, but the sentiment is the same: these vintages are becoming more charming as time goes by.

Then we had what we were all waiting for, the Pichon-Baron 2004. And it was at this point in the evening my note-taking took a turn for the worst.

This is what I managed to record before my pen made pulled a disappearing act: A deep, dark wine, orange hints of maturity at the edge, nicely integrated oak, vegetal nose, tertiary aromas of leather and tobacco, plus cedar and mint. More importantly, it was showing very well and proved that even if 2004 wasn’t a blockbuster vintage, there were some great wines and they are maturing better than first predicted.

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After the Pichon-Baron, I lost it completely. Never mind the fact there were two more wines to follow the Pichon-Baron – Suduiraut 2006 and Disznókö Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos – I just gave up on my notes at that point.

None of this surprise me. Nearly every time I go to a wine tasting, it is only a matter of time before the pen makes a disappearing act. As a result, I don’t really know what the final two wines were like.

I can say, however, that I remember the Sauternes was wonderful and the Tokaji sublime. But whichever aromas they offered up, the flavours they expressed, were never recorded.

And it must have been true, because while I was headed home I fell over on the bus and didn’t feel remotely embarrassed. But it didn’t attract any women either.

As I said earlier, I’m not so much improving with age but instead learning to live with what I’ve been given.