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?

Wine smelling of hair perming fluid? Less than a fiver

It was bound to happen eventually. I had gone months, if not more than a year, without tasting a white wine I found truly difficult to drink.

On the flipside, there have been many red wines along the way I found to be fairly vile (not including corked or oxidised bottles), but when it came to white wine it was all drinkable to one degree or another.

Clearly this should have given me reason to worry. Instead, I merrily went along with my daily business believing all was good in the world.

And then the offending bottle came into my life, a Calvet La Fleur Baron. Like a bad relationship, it was all wrong from the start. I should have avoided it before it began, but hindsight is a perfect science, as they say.

Yes, it was only £4.50, but I’ve never been one to believe price on its own is a determining factor. No, the signs lay elsewhere.

First, I bought it at Asda. I never shop at Asda. I haven’t liked Asda for, well, ever, and so the fact I was in there, buying not just one bottle of wine but two of them (they were on ‘sale’ apparently) in a part of Greater Manchester called Chadderton, could only mean bad news.

Second, in order to buy said bottle of wine I cycled to this Asda with my friend, Tim, on a fairly grim Friday afternoon when bad weather was rolling in and the sun was setting quickly.

It was cold. The traffic was frenetic. And the people in the store all looked like something out of the zombie apocalypse. All the signs of a bad relationship were there in front of me but I never saw them.

The tipping point, of course, was on the ride home from the supermarket – in the dark. Tim had been leading the way and himself narrowly avoided being side-swiped by someone driving a generic people carrier. He stormed off in anger to catch up the faux minivan, while I made the mistake of trying to follow. The traffic was dense and backed up. The sun had set. It was eery out there.

And that was when it happened. Just as I was sneaking along a line of stopped cars I saw another trying to cut through to a side road. I accelerated in vain to avoid it. BANG. The car hit my rear wheel and sent my blinking red light flying. My bike was out of control and I had to lean hard to the right to avoid slamming into a car on the left.

It was a hairy moment. Had I been carrying the wine I’d be tempted to believe, in hindsight, this was an attempt by some higher force to destroy it before it could reach my lips.

Despite that horrific experience, I was unscathed although a little bit shaken and a whole lot relieved.

And that is exactly how I felt every time I took a sip of this wine. It’s a horrific and frightening moment that you think could result in your demise. But then it’s suddenly over and you realise you’re still standing and, remarkably, uninjured.

When I shared this wine with Tim and his girlfriend, the initial reaction was negative across the board. For me, it smelled of hair salons. You know, that pungent odour of hair perming solution that lingers in the air. I thought it would go away with air or more chilling. But the stink remained.

There might have been decent fruit in this wine, but it seemed flabby and disjointed. It left a sharp taste in the mouth that made me want to do anything but drink more.

Worst of all, despite all three of us drinking a moderate amount of this wine, we all complained of worse-than-normal headaches the following morning.

Lucky for Tim he still has the second bottle of this misfit in his pantry.

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.

How do you like your 2010s? With a little Gavroche

Not long ago I found myself at a dinner where I had to double-check the place names to make sure I was, er, in the right place.

Was that email sent to me on purpose? Check. When I got to the door were they expecting me? Check. When you sat down at the table was that your name on the place card? Check.

Phew.

Well, hey, I’ve seen it happen to other people before.

These thoughts ran through my head because I found myself at London’s Le Gavroche one evening to taste the 2010 vintage from the Bordeaux properties owned by CA Grands Crus, the vineyard management arm of Credit Agricole run by Thierry Budin. Full disclosure: CA Grands Crus supplied the wine and paid for the dinner, which was attended by a few wine writers.

It gave me a chance to notice something I’ve not noticed before. Even though the wines on show came from different vineyard sites across the Médoc, and even though they spanned several different quality levels, there was a consistency in style and flavor all the way from the humblest offering to the grand vin from its best vineyard.

You know how family members all tend to have common traits that are easy to pick out in a crowd, and how you can often find out if someone is related to that family because they bear a resemblance to someone you know? This is what this wine tasting was like.

So, anyway, the restaurant was cozy, the food was spectacular and, well, few faults could be found in the wine.

Thierry could have hosted this tasting in a body shop under a railway arch in Tower Hamlets and I’d have gone. That he chose a two-Michelin-star restaurant was an appreciated convenience, although I’d probably have settled on Byron in a pinch.

Now, to the wine. First up was the firm’s entry-level wine, Château Blaignan Cru Bourgeois Médoc. It wasn’t the most complex wine I’ve had, but given its position in the portfolio I wasn’t expecting it either.

This was an honest everyday wine that displayed spice, cherries and black fruits, and that was just fine for me. My notes on this wine contain several scribbled words I can’t read now, but I’m fairly sure they were positive descriptions.

Oh yeah, and there was a firm grip of tannins here, which is a theme across all of the wines. Mr Budin said all of the wines are made in a traditional style, which is to say they won’t be adopting a New World style like many other French producers have done recently.

I think he made the right decision.

Next up was another cru bourgeois, this time from Margaux in the shape of Château La Tour de Mons.This has medium tannins, a light scent of oak on the nose, some spice, cassis, more dark fruits.

My notes tell me this was a little light on the finish, so I’m going to trust them in this instance and say while this was again fairly enjoyable, it left me wanting something more (as I always do).

So, what’s next? Ah, yes, the Château Meyney from Saint-Estephe, that’s what.

I’m not going to get too repetitive here. This was once again all dark fruits and vanilla, but it had a vegetal quality, perhaps green pepper, with wet stones, spice and medium tannin.

Next up, Château Grand-Puy Ducasse in Pauillac, the big one of the night. This, too, was displaying those dark fruits, that light oaky nose, that traditional Bordeaux style.

It took time to open up in the glass and therefore wasn’t showing as much complexity because it was still a bit closed. Either that or my nose was closed, since I distinctly recall having to give my sinuses a shot of Sudafed before the tasting began.

Ah, perhaps that was it.

Topping it all off was the Sauternes. Oh, Sauternes, what a wine. A lot of people approach sweet wines with trepidation. Admittedly, I did the same when I was new to wine. I didn’t know what to make of it, I didn’t know when I’d ever drink it and I was worried it would be, well, too sweet.

Château de Rayne Vigneau was acquired by CA Grands Crus in 2004 and seemingly has had a great deal of investment in the past decade or so. The wine in 2010 has 135g/litre of residual sugar and has a fresh, light flavour. It’s definitely still a bit young. But for me, it was wonderful all the same.

If the wines from CA Grands Crus are a sign of what we can expect from the rest of the 2010 vintage in Bordeaux, I’m looking forward to drinking a whole lot more.

Sara Benwell: The dessert wine that blew my mind

I’ve never been a big drinker of dessert wine. I always complained that it was too sweet and too sickly, and just not in line with my taste at all.

As someone who frequently berates the closed-minded and says you should never rule out an entire genre (can you have a genre of wine?) based on past experiences, I’ll admit that this was a little two-faced, but to be fair, I spent years saying “I’ll try a sip” and then hating it.

Hating it, until I tried a glass of dessert wine that totally and utterly blew my mind. I was at a client dinner where someone ordered a bottle. They offered it my way and I asked for my usual thumbnail – then it utterly blew my socks off.

I am a changed woman.

In Rome with Geordie I was after dessert wine all the time, trying to find something that compared to that first good glass (or three; if I remember correctly everyone was so enchanted by the aforementioned dessert wine I think we had another bottle or two).

What I learnt was that dessert wine comes in all shapes, sizes and flavours, and that even I can find a few that appeal to my ‘I like my wine dry as the Sahara’ palate.

Actually, one has to wonder who I’ve been drinking with all these years that I’d not had this revelation before? I suspect I’d been so blinded by past experience that I wasn’t willing to try and hunt for the impossible – a dessert wine that I’d like.

So why this ode to dessert wine? Well I can’t be the only person out there who’s dismissed it out of hand, so in true Sara style I’m going to myth-bust dessert wine, if only because the more people drink it, the more often I’ll discover something delightful!

Myth #1: Sweet means cloying

I think the main problem I had was that in my mind I associated sweet with cloying, and that probably isn’t very fair.  Sweet wines vary as much as (if not more than) dry wine and, while a fair few dessert wines leave me with a heavy, syrupy, unpleasant taste in my mouth, with the greats, of which there are many, I taste richness instead.

Myth #2: Dessert wines have to go with pudding

Well this just plainly isn’t true.  In fact, as someone who doesn’t really like puddings, I’m embracing pudding wine as my go-to alternative. It’s so dreary being the one who opts for a coffee when everyone else is having sticky toffee pudding, but I’d rather have a dessert wine anyway – and it means I don’t look like a spoilsport.

As a side note, dessert wines don’t even have to be drunk at the end of the meal. There are far more knowledgeable people than me who recommend any number of dessert wines as an aperitif, and the same number again will laud the pairing of certain dessert wines with appetisers.

Sauternes with fois gras is one that comes up a lot, but there’s a whole multitude of other pairings that make much more interesting combinations.

Myth #3: All dessert wines are the same

I’m embarrassed to even admit that I actually thought this, once upon a time, and obviously I couldn’t have been more wrong. Dessert wines are super-complicated. For starters the many different ways you can make dessert wines is astonishing.

For instance you can get botrytis wines that are made from grapes that have been exposed to a type of fungus that dehydrates the grape. The most famous of which include Sauternes. There are also wines made from grapes that are picked later meaning that the grapes have extra sugar.

There’s also a huge icewine market; Canadian producers are particularly good at this (go figure, it’s cold there…) and have cornered the market.  Somewhat opposite to this, you can also let the fruits dry out and get dessert wine that is sometimes called ‘raisin wine’.

Anyway, the point is that dessert wine has masses of variety, and some of them are enchanting, I was ruling them out on the basis of drinking a lot of very mediocre (read: bad) glasses, but I wasn’t exploring options properly (read: without bias).

Dessert wines are complicated to make, and take a lot of work, so if you find the right bottles you’ll have some real stunners on your hands.

The verdict

A final note, I’m not really talking about sherry or port here. Sherry and port are two of my favourite things to drink, but I was indoctrinated into them  far earlier so needed no convincing.

Take it from me though, if you’ve ever thought to yourself “I hate all dessert wine, it’s too sweet” etc, think again, do some research, and prepare your wallet, because once you’ve tried the right dessert wine, you’ll never look back!

Sara Benwell works in the world of PR for a London firm specialising in finance. She blogs about politics, digital, social, finance and wine. Follow her on Twitter @SaraBenwell

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: