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.

Wine shop Where’s Waldo? (Wally if you’re British)

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I don’t like to admit it, but I’m a stereotypical man when it comes to shopping. Confronted by myriad options, I panic and try to rush the process, usually to my own detriment.

I have a long-running track record of coming home with bags full of new clothes only to discover they are all the wrong size.

Plus I am easily swayed by salespeople. If I tell them I want to buy product X, somehow I walk out with product Y instead – and then regret it later.

Twice now I have walked into a wine shop to buy a bottle of Au Bon Climat (they have a terrible website, by the way) only to walk out with something I probably didn’t want.

For me it seems bottles of ABC are as elusive as the Holy Grail was to Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.

It’s safe to say the buying process can be a struggle for me, so I find it unhelpful if the bottles of wine are arranged though the shop is managed by Rob Gordon from High Fidelity. Imagine if the bottles were arranged autobiographically rather than by country, region or colour.

These shops exist. Because I’ve been to them.

Finding what you want in these places is impossible without seeking help an employee. And I think that is part of the tactic, because whenever I’ve come in looking for X, they always seem to steer me, through subterfuge and sensory overload, to something else. Something more expensive. Something that, in my cynical mind, probably isn’t selling fast enough.

Now, you would think arranging a few bottles on a wine shop’s shelves is straightforward.

All you need to do, really, is have a different shelf for each country and then separate the white wines from the red wines. Then on other shelves you have space for Champagnes and sparkling wines, dessert wines, Ports, sherries and anything else.

Simple. So simple, in fact, wine shops up and down the country do exactly this, from the cavernous Majestic Wine Warehouse to the neighbourhood vintner and even the fusty merchants like Berry Bros & Rudd and so on.

Even the supermarkets – known for their efficiency at delivering products to customers’ hands – dare not meddle with this system. They know what’s best.

Yet there is always someone who thinks there must be a Better Way™ to do things.

I can think of two shops within shouting distance of my home that have shunned the conventional layout.

Offender number one has no signs on the shelves at all. It simply has all the whites on one side and all the reds on the other. After a few confused minutes of staring blankly at all the bottles, it eventually occurred to me which ones were white and which were red.

Then a few minutes later I figured out they were, in fact, arranged by country – but not in anything that resembled alphabetical order.

Last I checked Germany comes before Spain in the alphabet. Unless they’re referring to the country as Espana. But if you’re going to use Espana on the one hand, you had better be using  Deutschland on the other.

The other shop I visit takes it a step further and arranges everything by grape. Yes – by grape.

If you want to tell prospective customers they’re really not welcome in the shop unless they are knowledgeable to identify what they want by its constituent grapes (and it better not be any fucking merlot), you know you’re dealing at the higher end of the market.

But how helpful is this for the average consumer? Think back to a time before you knew much about wine. Think back to when you knew the wine only as St Emilion or Saumur, as Rioja and Chianti. A time when you couldn’t name the grapes used to make them.

Merlot? Cabernet franc? Tempranillo? Sangiovese? Would you have thought to head for the shelf with those grapes labelled at the top? Handy for those of us who wake up and say, “Today I’d like to buy a bottle of chenin blanc and I want the shop to arrange all of the world’s chenin blancs together in one place so I can compare and contrast.”

But not so handy if you wake up and say, “I just want a bottle of Vouvray, whatever the hell it’s made of.”

And don’t even get me started on some of the blends I’ve seen. Cabernet-shiraz. Chenin blanc-chardonnay-viognier. Or how about Olaszrizling-furmint-hárslevelü-juhfark?

Do they have a shelf for that?

On not drinking a wine before its time (And how to do it cheaply)

Okay, so I’ve been admonished.

Friends and readers who say they just want to buy a modest bottle of wine and not have to endure wade through my ramblings about posh wines have spoken their minds.

“Write about wine I can actually afford,” people have said.

And I will, but not before I say something important about wine that just happens to involve bottles costing a lot of money.

Here goes: I’d say it’s safe very few of us actually get to drink wine of any significant age. Wine we see in specialist shops – and particularly supermarkets – tends to be released at a relatively young age for early drinking. That is a fact.

It is widely known that most bottles sold are opened on the same day they are bought; only true wine nerds care to mess about with any of that cellaring faff (people like me, I suppose). Most of the world lives bottle to bottle.

Add to this the fact producers sell a lot of wine young because they need the revenue and you have a society full of wine drinkers who have never tried something truly mature.

This is a shame. And I will tell you why.

Never a wine before its time

Orson Welles famously said in advertisements for wine brand Paul Masson (ironically not one you would *ever* age in a cellar), “We will sell no wine before its time.”

Even if Paul Masson wasn’t the sort of wine you would brag about drinking, the message was at least right.

A couple weeks ago this mantra was reinforced in my mind when I attended a wine tasting of the 2003 and 2004 vintages of Bordeaux estates Chateau Calon-Segur and Chateau Phelan-Segur at an event hosted by Schroders for personal finance journalists (full disclosure: Schroders organised and paid for the wines). First, we started the night with Joh. Jos. Prüm’s Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2003, which itself was an education in drinking medium-term aged riesling.

The aroma of gasoline/petroleum was almost off-putting at first, hitting your olfactory centre with a pungent rush that might have turned off shy wine drinkers. This was a far cry from your father’s bottle of Black Tower.

After this, we sat down for the main event, where we compared the 2003/04 Calon-Segur with the 2003/04 Phelan-Segur. The Calon-Segur, known for being the bigger, better and more expensive of the two, was still tight and closed at nearly a decade old.

Meanwhile, the 2003 Phelan was starting to show its age a little more and, arguably, was more mature and closer to being ready for drinking.

A few days later the Segur’s youth was driven home when I drank something truly mature – a bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1978.

I can’t really help myself but transform into Miles from Sideways and bore you to tears with the way the wine was showing its age by bricking at the edge, how the tannins were full integrated into the wine, or how it had aromas of leather, cedar and tobacco.

But I will say the exercise illustrated just how much potential the wine would have had if it had been, well, not opened so soon.

This point was re-affirmed the day after the Lafite experience when, armed with a bottle of Calon-Segur 2004 that had been opened but not used at the tasting earlier in the week (I pushed the cork back into the bottle, to keep it perfectly fresh for a few more days), I opened again it for a friend at dinner.

And it was…still tighter than a rusted nut and loaded with tannin.

If all this wasn’t enough, yet more mature wine came my way. The following evening we cracked open a bottle of Dom Perignon 1996.

You know how a lot of Champagne is very acidic, bright, bubbly and seems to cut through everything you might have eaten, including your gums?

You see, you don’t get that with properly mature Champagne. Everything just…sings in harmony.

Now to the money-saving bit

So here it is. If you want something with more maturity and a decent dose of bottle age, Rioja is a good bet. I am always blown away by how cheap and well-made the wines of Rioja are. Something like a gran reserva will have spent a lot of time in barrel and yet more in bottle before being released, quite often for a fraction of what you’ll pay for equally fine wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy. Same with Port, Madeira and Sherry.

If you want to drink something grown up and complex, I’d look south to the Iberian peninsula.

Recently I bought a bottle of Rioja from the 1996 vintage for less than £15. In general, unloved wine regions can be a source of wonderful wine bargains. I bought a bottle of Chateau Calon Montagne-St Emilion 1996 for €8 when I was in Bordeaux. Why was it so cheap? Because the Montagne-St Emilion appellation is a lesser cousin to St Emilion and, therefore, is not as popular among wine drinkers.

And there you go; something affordable to consider.

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

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

Well, they were wrong.

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

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

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

Until now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eulogy for a Bordelais winemaker: 1958 – 2012.

Duke, the Winemaker's dog

WHAT I REMEMBER MOST about the winemaker who owned the small vineyard I visited the past two years were his calloused hands and fingernails blackened by the soil in which his vines grew.

He was a man of few words, going about his business in the winery while we, the English and Canadian tourists, indulged in bike rides through the vineyards and trips to local wine merchants.

But by night, he came alive. He would cook great feasts in his modest kitchen from ingredients that seemed to come from nowhere. We would eat meals that came in waves, each course being given more care and attention than we Brits or Canadians could muster.

On those warm summer nights we would eat and drink late into the night until we started to talk philosophy, then drink more wine until we couldn’t talk at all.

After one of our more memorable celebrations, he clutched my hand and read my palm, his eyes wide open and his words emphatic. We later found him lying on the patio, half passed out and clinging to several of his dogs.

Most of all, he was also a great winemaker who learned the craft just like his father and his father’s father.

I didn’t know what to expect when my friend Trev invited me (along with our friend Tim) to spend two weeks at the Winemaker’s vineyard just outside St Emilion. Visions of grand stone chateaux and long, tree-lined driveways came to mind.

The reality of the vineyard was much more modest. When we pulled up to his humble stucco house surrounded by weathered tractors and ageing cars, it occurred to me the wine trade was not all glamour. He was not making a fortune from the family business, but he made a living and was happy.

If you could measure a man’s wealth by his circle of friends, he was the richest man I ever met. He was a son, a brother, a father and a friend. He was a musician, a performer, an animal lover, a conservationist and, I’m told, a petanque champion.

His house was full of aquariums where he raised fish. He performed in a drumming and dancing troupe and instruments from all over the world lines his walls. He had dogs, chickens, peafowl, pigeons and three donkeys, one of them unruly.

The Winemaker was always an enigma. He could be taciturn and distant. But that’s just how he was. At other times he was generous and cheerful, full of wit and charm.

We heard very little from him during his final eight months. We were at his vineyard when he became ill, complaining of pain in his gut and clearly unable to stand or work some days. He told us his doctors had found spots on his pancreas and liver, but more tests were to come.

And so he would sleep long and often during the day, rising for meals and to do the work that needed to be done.

Back in the UK, we heard nothing. Emails went unanswered for weeks. Those weeks turned into months. And then some news came. On 29 April he had passed away. Pancreatic cancer.

The Winemaker: 1958 – 2012

Photos: Tim James