Wine clubs: The good and the ordinary

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Recently I was asked if I would be interested in trying out a new wine club. They would send me a mixed case of wine and I could provide my most honest opinions. Two thoughts raced through my mind at that very moment.

The first thought centred on my concern about the ethical ramifications of receiving the case (and yes, full disclosure, I accepted the case). The second thought was that I was about to experience the inevitable mishaps of Britain’s couriers, who seem to make it their business to infuriate any person who doesn’t lay about at home all day during the working week.

Of course, the courier’s riposte to that is, what did you think was going to happen when you asked something to be delivered to a place where you had no intention of being during working hours? Quite. Of course, I could have provided my office address. But the whole point of having delivered is the delivery itself. If I wanted to carry bottles of wine home from my office, I might as well walk to the shop and buy them off the shelf.

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It took about a week from start to finish to cross the threshold of my home, but finally I was in possession of this case of wine. Specifically, a case of wine from Berry Bros & Rudd, the sort of wine merchant that operates out of a shop that looks like it belongs in the 17th century because it is from the 17th century.

I have dabbled with wine clubs and their variants in the past. There was the time I signed up for The Sunday Times Wine Club because a friend of mine bought from there and it seemed like the thing to do. Apart from receiving a welcome pack in the post, it has lain dormant ever since.

Then I had one of those Wine Bank accounts at Virgin Wines because the prospect of being given 25 per cent off whatever I bought – even those bottles of Dom Perignon – was enticing at the time. But other than those bottles of Dom Perignon (which were truly cheap after the discount) and one or two gems here and there, I found that their portfolio wasn’t for me.

So here I am today. Unlike the cheap and cheerful wines and stark tasting notes supplied by the likes of Virgin Wines, this Berry Bros offering is clearly aiming for something more. Along with the 12 bottles comes a membership pack in the form of a ring binder complete with articles, a who’s who on grapes and regions, as well as a guide to tasting, storing and cooking with wine.

Being a fairly straightforward person who self-identifies as a working-class Canadian, I’ve never been one for anything stuffy or ornate. But when it comes to wine (and bicycles), I can’t help but be absorbed by the culture. I can debate terroir with the best of them.

Most wine clubs want to foist a generic introductory case upon its members, often for less than £10 per bottle, which means most of what you get is at the more ordinary end of the spectrum. Think Sunday Times, Virgin Wines, Laithwaite’s, Naked Wines, et al. The only way you can avoid this is by going straight to your local wine merchant and asking them if they have a wine club of their own. You will pay slightly more for it – the cost of one steak dinner a month – but at least it will be good.

So, how is the wine? The case came with two bottles each of: a South African chenin blanc, a Chianti Classico, a red Rully, a Maconnais, a Ribero del Duero and a Mosel riesling. Not a bad selection, but it ought to be for £180 for each delivery.

I can offer my opinion for only one of the bottles so far, a Signal Cannon Chenin Blanc 2011. With a retail price of £12.50 (or £11.25 per bottle when buying by the case), this is more than your average UK wine drinker would spend on a bottle of white wine, but then again, the average Berry Bros customer spends more than your average UK wine drinker.

As wine goes, this is what South African chenin blanc is all about. Dry but with good weight in the mouth, plenty of tropical fruits and enough acidity to hold it all together. This isn’t like chenin blanc from Vouvray, but it isn’t meant to be either.

The only problem is the price. This bottle would run at a slightly lower price at any other retailer (it is selling for £7.95 at Davy’s), but we must accept that, in some cases, there is a premium to be paid when buying from Berry Bros (that Mayfair address can’t be cheap). And then we have to consider that Berry Bros customers accept a certain quality level at all times, even when understated.

Case in point: while Waitrose sells its Good Ordinary Claret for £4.99, the Berry Bros version runs at £9. If you’re a Berry Bros customer, there is good and ordinary and then there is good and ordinary.

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?

Why we should probably just ignore wine scores and focus on drinking the stuff

Wine scores. Both loved and loathed by everyone in the wine profession, they have become a necessary evil as consumers seek out scores as guidance when deciding on what to drink.

After several years of trying to develop my own way of accurately scoring the wines I consume, I’ve come to the conclusion I am as flummoxed by the process as I ever have been. And therein lies my problem. If I can’t get it right, how can the casual wine enthusiast?

It seems many people in the wine world are embroiled in a debate about the way people review and rate wines. And it also seems people spend more time obsessing about wine scores than actually drinking the stuff.

Me, I find it all a bit too confusing than it’s worth. Some people advocate the 100-point system because it provides precision or – shudder – ‘granularity’. Others, meanwhile, prefer the 20-point system, which does the same with decimals, and then there are those who say ratings are really just pointless (I am aware of the pun).

Where wine scores have gone wrong is when they shift from being an innocent way of grading a wine to what can only be described as a critic’s grandiose display of machismo.

This was a great value Bourgogne for the money but if I had to give you a score I’d be at a loss to tell you.

Look no further than American critic James Suckling and the videos where he is seen shouting out scores as he whips through a series of wines, offering up numbers so quickly it makes me wonder if he’s simply pulling them out of the air.

“I’m 98-plus on that!” he said about one wine, then boldly exclaimed, “100 points. Perfect wine,” about another.

A perfect wine? Really?

If Dirk Niepoort, winemaker at Niepoort in Portugal, has anything to say about the topic, he thinks the notion of a perfect wine can be a bad thing. Why? Because it will cause prices to skyrocket and make the wines unattainable for many customers.

My gut tells me the process of rating a wine out of 100 is more arbitrary than its proponents want us to believe. Do I need to know something is an 88 as opposed to an 87? Of course not.

I can also assure you, if you asked me to tell you if the Montagne-St-Emilion I bought from The Winemaker was an 84 or an 87, I would fail.

When it comes down to it, the best way to recommend wine is to talk about it and share what is being experienced rather than apply a score to it that comes with little explanation. If only everyone else would agree.

What I’ve been drinking lately:

A South African Bordeaux-style blend…

In a tenuous link to wine scores and reviews, I came up against this quandary the other day when I had been asked to review a bottle of wine for Wines of South Africa through Twitter.

The bottle in question was a Vilafonté Series M 2009, a red Bordeaux-style blend containing a surprising 46% malbec.

Here were my [edited yet still incredibly stuffy] tweets about the wine:

“Vilafonté Series M 2009. Deep ruby, vanilla on the nose, baked dark fruits, spice.

“In mouth, more vanilla, dark fruits, higher alcohol, medium acidity, nice gripping tannins.

“I’m getting tobacco/cigar box, some leather. A touch more oak than I would prefer. Love the cepages.”

Nowhere in there could I come up with a score for this wine. Was it an 86? A 90? Maybe a 95? I have no idea.

It was a great wine, but I also thought it was too oaky and, if anyone has read my work on 12×75, you’ll know I’m not the biggest fan of over-oaked wines.

You can find this wine and previous vintages at Winedirect for £27.49.

And some great English rosé…

This past weekend I decided to make the most of the sunshine and do something I just don’t do often enough: drink more rosé.

The bottle in question was Hush Heath’s Nannette’s English Rosé 2010, a bottle that came from the Wine Pantry in Borough Market as a gift from my friend Geoff.

Made from the three most commonly used grapes in Champagne – pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay – it is the same wine used in the firm’s English sparkling rosé, but the still version comes from the ‘taille’ from the pressing.

When making sparkling wine in the Champagne style, a ‘cuvee’ comes from the first 2,050 litres of wine pressed from 4,000 kg of grapes, while the ‘taille’ is the final 500 litres.

This is a refreshing, subtle and dry rosé with a dose of strawberries and fruit as well as a mineral element to make it a refreshing choice on a hot day. Buy it at the Wine Pantry for £16.