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.

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Big Mac vs Dead Hippie: On junk science and fine wine

Can you tell theID-100261094 difference between a £2.59 Mcdonald’s Big Mac and the £8.50 Dead Hippie burger from London’s MEAT liqour, purveyor of fine but pricey burgers?

Of course you could. One is anaemic and flat in flavour, clearly the product of mass production and cheap ingredients. The other is literally dripping in flavour, is handmade and cooked to order, and most important of all, loaded with expensive ingredients.

Few would dispute the vast differences between these burgers. So why is the opposite true when it comes to wine? The flow of news stories telling us that seasoned wine experts, from Masters of Wine and some not, who are unable to point out the cheap, £4 wine out of a group containing some of the world’s most expensive wines is practically interminable. But recently it seems that the volume of these articles has been on the increase — helped along the way, no doubt, by publications like the Daily Mail.

If you thought it was safe to progress through the summer without encountering a news article that dismissed wine tasting and wine critics as being entirely useless, well you were wrong.

Back in July the Mail, our favourite sensationalist newspaper and purveyor of mindless twaddle designed only to stoke rage among anyone remotely reasonable in character, proclaimed that its taste test of cheap wines from Lidl and expensive wines from top Bordeaux chateaux resulted in ‘hilarious’ results.

The article featured Oz Clarke, the expert, and two people who, shall we say, are more likely wine ‘experts’ insofar as they are expert at drinking it.

The only thing hilarious about the article, from what I could surmise, was that Oz Clarke pretty much nailed the entire tasting and yet the Daily Mail still tried to convince its readers that no one could ever tell the difference between a £4.99 Aldi Bordeaux and a £514 bottle of Chateau Haut Brion. Except Oz Clarke for the fact that Oz Clarke clearly could and in fact did.

This is a topic that gets more than its fair share of coverage, both in the anti-wine snob national press and among snooty bloggers like me. Politics has the debates over taxes and the welfare state; the wine world has the debates over natural wines and whether or not critics can do the one thing they have spent their careers doing: picking out the good ones from the bad.

Newspapers love a good headline. The Daily Mail knows this better than anyone, but it isn’t alone. The New York Times has been known to weigh in on the debate. So too the Guardian, which more often than not prefers to make absolute declarations in order to drive more traffic to its site more than it probably cares about the topic itself.

Then there is one of my favourite media outlets: NPR. It could, just like the others, spice up its stories to more sensational levels to drive traffic. But this is the house of reason and analysis we’re talking about. Sensationalism doesn’t  register in a radio network where the newsreaders sound as though they are whispering the news to you while sitting in a wing back chair by a roaring fire.

NPR also has a reputation for analysing a topic at a level much deeper than most other media outlets, so it came as no surprise that their discussion about the validity of wine tasting (Is wine-tasting junk science?) briefly veers into discussions philosophy rather than the mechanics of comparing a £5 bottle of wine with one worth £500.

The article also sums up wine tasting in a much more eloquent manner than my burger analogy above:

If you know English, then you are expert not only at discriminating significant English sounds, but you also spontaneously and reliably appreciate their meaning. Someone with no acquaintance with English can’t do any of this, even though his or her sensory organs may be in fine working order.
— Alva Noë, NPR, 8 August 2014

So is wine tasting junk science? The question I ask is, who ever said it was a science? I think the Daily Mail article provided us with all the conclusions that we need, even if it was unintentional.

A reader offer you say? Yes, a reader offer: IWC gold medal tasting

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So the other day the IWC asked me if I would kindly spread the word about their upcoming tasting event for gold medal-winning wines and I thought, why not?

As you might recall, back in November the IWC allowed me to attend one of their judging days and I have been worried ever since not all bothered by the fact that I cocked up their results a little bit. As a consummate professional, I blamed it on the fact they made me taste interminable flights of rough-and-ready Rioja and crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc, rather than my untrained palate.

Now you can decide yourself if I got it right (even though there’s actually no way of knowing which Riojas I judged), rather than take a chance by buying one of those award-emblazoned wines during your next trip to the supermarket.

Not wanting this to read like an advertisement or anyone to be under the impression that I take inducements, the only reason I agreed to do this is because I’ve always been treated kindly by the IWC and its PR team.

So, why not? Here are the details:

The International Wine Challenge is hosting an event that it calls A Taste of Gold on Thursday 26 June. The tasting takes place between 6pm and 9pm at Lindley Hall, The Royal Horticultural Halls, London.

This an annual event featuring IWC gold medal-winning wine and sake, and it is only for producers who have won a gold medal in the current challenge year. They are also allowed to show a selection of other IWC medal winning-wines and sakes from their portfolio, so I apologise in advance if you stumble across the occcasional bronze medal winner (as an aside, a judge once told me that giving a wine ‘commended’ or even bronze medal status is akin to telling the winemaker that it’s crap, but that’s just one person’s opinion).

Tickets for the event are normally £20 but you can get £5 off if you use the promotional code ‘GRAPENUT’. (Note the cute reference to the name of my blog.)

Full disclosure: The IWC has offered me two free tickets to this event. In the spirit of good ethics (and if I actually accept the tickets) I will donate their face value to a yet-to-be-determined charity. Feel free to recommend a charity in the comments section on this page.

And don’t worry, you won’t be stuck in a room full of socially awkward punters and the squirrely folk who run the wineries. The top brass of the IWC will be there too (Tim Atkin, Oz Clarke, Charles Metcalfe, etc).

So, if you have a bone to pick about the medal-winning wines, you’ll be able to hold the senior judges to account.

All the details are here: http://goldmedal.internationalwinechallenge.com/

Domaine Marie Faugeres vs The Real Thing

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Back in the 1990s, one of Coca-Cola’s advertising slogans was to declare that it was ‘the real thing’. This was, of course, intended as a way for Coke to differentiate itself from the imitators out there, something that it has been doing since the late 19th century.

The words never really had much meaning for me. It could have been because I was only 11 at the time. It could also have been because I paid more attention to Cindy Crawford, who adorned their television commercials and billboards at the time. The phrase ‘the real thing‘ was packed full of as much meaning as Fox News’s claim to being ‘fair and balanced’.

What exactly is ‘the real thing’ anyway? Apart from being a tautology, it is also a pointless declaration. Not long ago I discussed the concept of real and natural wine, so I won’t drone on about that again. But what I will do is discuss those times you get the real thing and those times when you get an imposter.

We have all had those moment of success, when that bottle you bought for its striking label it delivered everything you wanted and more.

Perfection.

And then…well then there are the times you found disappointment at the bottom of a rough-and-ready jug wine: something with the consistency of diluted Ribena with a vague flavouring of alcohol.

For instance, Faugeres. This is a small appellation within the Languedoc,  inland of Beziers on the French Mediterranean coast. The production here is mostly red wine from the carignan, cinsault, grenache, mourvedre and syrah grapes, although white wines make up about a fifth of the annual output.

This is a young appellation, having been created in 1982, but like much of the South of France, quality levels are high and consistent these days. Two of my favourite Languedoc wines, Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres 2010 and Clos Fantine Faugeres Tradition 2011, both come from Faugeres, selling at £19.50 and £14.50 respectively.

Together they meet all of those expectations that form when opening a bottle of wine: fragrant, rich, earthy, complex and hedonistic.

So to be fair to Domaine Marie Faugeres 2012, it was always going to be fighting an uphill battle. A mere supermarket wine selling for £8.49 at Waitrose could not be expected to be the real thing.

It is lighter in body than the others, big on fruit with a scattering of spices and an easy-drinking style. So what’s the problem? The problem is that it doesn’t quite tick all of the boxes. That it is another affordable wine that falls short of expectations. That I am sure siphoning the essence from the tank of a clapped out Citroen would yield a similar result.

This is one of those wines that reminds you why you should have spent more. It is why people buy a Tag Heuer watch rather than a Timex. One is weighty and expresses quality; the other is light, flimsy and made for mass market consumption.

If you goal is to achieve that slight buzz that only three glasses of wine can produce, Domaine Marie does it just as well as the others. But a fine wine experience it is not.

It appears that in Faugeres, if you want the real thing, you need to spend real money.

 

 

 

Oranges and Turkeys: If the underpants don’t excite you, the wines will

Looking back at a year’s worth of credit receipts, it seems I really only buy underpants, socks and the odd bottle of wine from Marks & Spencer. I blame this on where I work.

Anyone who has worked in the City of London can attest that there is a dearth of decent wine retailers. Apart from Uncorked up at Bishopsgate, Amathus at Leadenhall Market  and The Wine Library at Tower Hill, there are not many other places you can go for a browse on your lunch break or even after work.

If it’s a wine bar you want, there are plenty. El Vino. Planet of the Grapes. 28-50. The list is long and varied before even mentioning the more corporate offerings. But a mere scattering of wine shops? You can find yourself scanning the same shelves over and over and over again. A man can return to the same merchant only so often.

It turns out some of the most daring wine offerings on the high street are being sold at what is probably one of the most traditional and staid British retailers: Marks & Spencer.

I haven’t exactly discovered something new. We’ve been reading about the wine selection at M&S for quite some time. As far back as 2008, Tim Atkin was telling us how much M&S wine had improved, while also revealing his choice when it comes to underpants (unlike me, he does not buy his pants from M&S).

For a big retailer, the wine options are rather bold. During a single visit to M&S, I counted wines from Brazil, Croatia, Greece, Georgia, Lebanon and Turkey. These are daring offerings considering that the most popular wine brands in the UK include the likes of Blossom Hill, Hardy’s, Echo Falls and Gallo.

I have not drunk any of these big brand wines in quite some time, but something tells me they are nothing at all like a malagousia from Greece, a okuzgozu from Turkey or even a much more conservative Turkish blend of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. This could be because the average M&S shopper is not the same as the average person who buys their wine from their local off licence.

IMAG0927-1Reading that last line, it occurs to me that I have become one of them, a person who seeks out obscure wines and grape varieties and then blogs about them in a fury. It appears I am behind the curve on this one. And I am definitely a long way off making it into the Wine Century Club. I would have to keep track of all the grapes I am trying, for a start.

Of course, M&S isn’t the only retailer offering wines made from the less familiar end of the grape spectrum. There are too many good merchants to name, although I will make special mention of Red Squirrel Wine for carving a niche out of selling wines that are out of the ordinary.

So. Back to M&S. On a recent trip during a rather bored lunch hour, I noticed this Georgian wine, Tbilvino Qvevris 2011. An orange wine, this wine is made by fermenting the grape juice in contact with the skins, resulting in textured, tannic white that has a pale orange colour and a slightly nutty, almost sherry-like characteristic.

In a Daily Mail article about this very wine, people who posted comments on the article said they were disappointed to learn that the wine wasn’t actually made with oranges or that the wine’s actual colour wasn’t the orange they had expected.

IMAG0929I paused after reading this and wondered why people bother to even write comments under these articles. And then I wondered why I was reading about wine in the Daily Mail in the first place.

At the same time I also bought this Greek wine, Thymiopoulos Xinomavro 2011. Made  from the xinomavro grape, this wine is said to be comparable to a fine Italian red. Is it true? I will find out soon and report back.

A few years ago, Greek wine would have been a no-go for most people. Their white wines might have been acceptable, but a red wine? Could it really be palatable? But these days, Greek wine is beginning to hit its stride. From assyrtiko to malagousia and naoussa, the country that for many was known for retsina and little else is beginning to turn heads.

M&S isn’t the only place to find wines like this. Online retailers, national merchants and local merchants have boosted their ranges to include something out of the ordinary. Go to your local independent merchant and give them your support.

 

 

 

 

 

When is wine real and when is wine not real?

ID-100146926When it comes to discussion topics, there are three subjects I try to avoid:

1. Religion

2. Politics

3. Natural wine.

Each of these has a tendency to uncover deep-seated opinions and result in a heated debate. My usual instinct is to move the conversation into a different direction or defuse the situation before things go out of control.

But another Real Wine Fair is here and I am feeling a little bit brace. The UK wine world has come a long way in the past few years and now boasts two fairs that focus entirely on real wine: the Real Wine Fair and RAW. This can only be great news.

The problem is, I’m not actually sure what ‘real’ wine is. Nevertheless, I am fairly certain I know what it is not.

Anything poured from a bottle that you would normally find on the bottom shelf of the Asda wine aisle at an overpriced London cocktail bar is probably not real wine.

There are occasions when you should risk it and order the Australian shiraz and there are times when you should play it safe have a martini or a beer instead. At least you know what you are going to get.

With the wine, you know you are always going to lose. Whether it is the pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, shiraz or merlot, you can be certain that the only thing that they have in common with real wine is the fact they were made with fermenting grapes. Apart from that, they are watery, limpid and devoid of enjoyable flavours.

This was the case with my Australian shiraz the other week, a £7.50 glassful of grape juice that tasted as though it had been laced with rubbing alcohol and Varsol. Standard fare for a City of London cocktail bar where people go to see and to be seen, not to appreciate the fluid they’re pouring into their gullets.

I could have used some real wine that evening.

Not long ago the thought of ordering ‘real’ or ‘natural’ wine brought with it worries of oxidised, faulty bottles that were interesting for their curiosity value but not actually enjoyable to drink. Occasionally a local merchant would carry a bottle or two as an experiment, but they didn’t really gain much traction.

A particularly awful natural wine that I drank in a (now deceased) shop in East Dulwich has haunted my thoughts for the past two years. Could these natural wines achieve redemption? It seems so.

In recent months I have noticed a growing collection of natural and organic wines at my local shop, Highbury Vintners.

Whether they are organic, biodynamic, low sulphur or full-on ‘natural’ wines, the increased focus on producing good wines with minimal intervention and sustainable farming practices is reassuring.

Thing is, I don’t actually know where we draw the line between normal wine – that is the wines that don’t purport to be organic, biodynamic or natural – and those that are specifically marketed as being organic, biodynamic or entirely natural. I understand a great deal about them all, but I have seen far too many debates – too many arguments – to be under any illusion that I could describe them in intimate detail.

This is where I lose sight of what makes real wine different from every other wine. Is a wine not real if the grower has to spray once during the year out of necessity? Is a wine not real if they don’t use indigenous yeasts? At what point is a wine real and not real?

I appreciate that this is a serious debate for many people; wine made in large volumes for the purpose of being sold in the mass market is almost never a pleasant thing. The line I hear most often is that real wine is made with the least intervention possible.

When The Winemaker cultivated his grapes each year through blood, sweat and tears, then turned them into a wine that earned him a living. That was real wine. His vines weren’t sprayed excessively with chemicals. But he sprayed what was necessary when the conditions required.

When I was speaking to the owner of Highbury Vintners, I was astounded to hear that their selection of natural wines was the small group of good ones out of a larger group that contained many unacceptable wines. When we think of stepping into a wine shop to buy wines, we think we are going through a selection process all our own, but in reality the shop owner (if it is a good shop) has already done this for us.

On that note, here are a few real wines I have been enjoying lately:

Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres 2010

This is a favourite wine of mine, made of a blend of carignan, cinsault and grenache. It is rich, has plenty of fruit and is reminiscent of the region. Not cheap at £19.50, but worth it.

Clos Fantine Faugeres Tradition 2011 

Another wine from Faugeres, this is fairly funky but again brings with it lots of satisfaction. Think South of France influence, garrigue, a rich palate and plenty of fruit.

Chateau la Villatade NoMa Minervois 2011

This is a producer that uses natural yeasts, keeps their sulphur levels as low as they can away with and avoids pesticides. This is rich and full of dark fruits with a tannic edge and an enjoyable earthiness. Despite its warm climate origins, this is surprisingly fresh.