Tag Archives: wine

New wine trend alert: is obscure the new familiar?

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At what point does something stop being a coincidence and start to become a bona fide trend? That’s been the question on my mind over the last week, when three things happened that would, individually, have been merely curious but collectively appear perhaps more meaningful.

First the Wine Society sent out an offer for “Off the Beaten Track” producers – lots of stuff from Eastern Europe, plus Turkey, Morocco and a few unknown corners of more familiar countries. Unusual grapes included novac, fernão pires, tămâiosă, Kalecik Karasi and malagoussia.

Then last week Laithwaites unveiled four new and relatively unusual wines that will be added to their portfolio in April – reds from Georgia and Turkey, a white from Greece and, most surprising of all, a three-year-old sauvignon blanc from India. As it happened just hours before I headed off to try that quartet I was in another corner of London trying a dozen Japanese wines made from the koshu grape, almost all of which are now available in the UK.

For anyone appalled at the torrential downpour of identikit vinous tosh that thunders down the British gullet on a weekly basis, the possibility of us collectively rousing from our Pinot Grigio-enduced torpor and actively seeking out outstanding examples of obscure grape varieties from unexplored locations would seem attractive if outlandishly unlikely. But clearly there are plenty of magpies out there with an eye out for an unusual jewel.

I haven’t tried any of the Wine Society’s offerings, but I did try Laithwaites’ newbies, with varying degrees of success: Mantra sauvignon blanc 2009, the Indian white, is for curiosity and particularly devilish blind-tasting games only, lacking the zip and excitement which has made the grape so popular (it’s a bit of a surprise to find anyone adding a three-year-old sauvignon to their list, but it’s actually the latest release from a winery who were apparently too unimpressed with the fruit they grew in 2010 and 2011 to make any wine at all). Thema, the Greek white, a 60/40 blend of assyrtiko and sauvignon blanc, is excellently refreshing and bright, if not a huge bargain at £11.49 (Waitrose sell a very reliable assyrtiko which is a little cheaper and is one of the bargains of their 25% off sales). The Turkish red (Vinart 2010, £10.99), a blend of kalecik karasi and syrah, was a bit confected and flabby (though had its fans elsewhere in the room) but I thought the Tbilvino saperavi 2010, while so dark, thick and deep as to be suitable almost entirely for the chilly months its April release date will be perfectly timed to miss, was good value at £8.99.

Laithwaites already have a few wines from Eastern Europe, including pinot grigios from Moldova and Hungary (Campanulla, which is perhaps surprisingly the best-selling white wine in their entire range, and is currently discounted by a pound from the usual £6.99). Among the offerings from their Moldovan brand, Albastrele, is a white cabernet sauvignon, which is taking unusualness to unusual levels. I didn’t get to try that one, but I was pleasantly surprised by a Romanian pinot noir (not one for the purists, but decent value at £7.29).

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And that brings us to the koshu, the first time I’d tried Japanes wines that weren’t sake and an introduction to a new grape. Fascinating stuff, this, grown in an area devilled by ludicrous summer rainfall even in a good year – last year wasn’t one of those: there were three tornadoes last September alone, when rainfall was triple the average. This leads to high humidity and a need to protect the bunches of plump grapes from the downpour with individual waterproof hats. The upshot is very clean, normally totally dry and generally extremely acidic wines. Most of those I tasted were barrel samples of the 2011 vintage, but I was impressed. The only downside is that by the time you fit each bunch with individual waterproof hats, ease them through a crazily testing growing season, turn them into wine, submit them for tough radiation testing (an expensive necessity for Japanese imports to the EU these days), transport them a couple of thousand miles and then add on Britain’s frustratingly high tax and duty, they’re not very cheap. The cheapest bottle I can find in the UK is £15.99; Amathus have three different examples including a rare sparkler and Selfridges is the best place in London to pick up a bottle.

Or you can just have a pinot grigio. It’s up to you.

Who sells whose wine?

I made (what I thought was) an interesting statistical discovery while cruising the internet yesterday. Wine-searcher.com is intended primarily as a place where consumers can search for which retailers are offering a specific wine, and how much they are offering it for. It costs a smallish amount ($39) a year to get the full service; I’ve been subscribing for the last couple of years and find it extremely useful. But it does other things as well.

In order to tell you who’s selling a wine, they need to store every retailer’s entire catalogue. At some point recently they’ve started displaying breakdowns of what makes up these catalogues. Clearly a retailer’s spirits are included alongside the wines in these statistics (either that or Scotland makes more wine than I realised), and probably their beers as well (Belgium and Holland crop up on Sainsbury’s list). I found them quite interesting, especially when comparing retailers, so here are a few highlights. (I know the text in the graphics is pretty small – if you click on them they’ll open in their own window and will hopefully be big enough to read)

You might expect, for example, Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury’s to offer a fairly similar selection, but you’d be wrong. Every standard major English retailer sells more wine from France than from any other country, but at Asda the USA are hot on their heals – French wine makes up 12.64% of their offering, American 12.48% – and at Tesco Australia isn’t far behind (23.79% to 20.7%). The USA’s popularity at Asda isn’t reflected elsewhere – they provide 3.81% of Tesco’s wines, 6.58% at Sainsbury’s and 4.79% at Waitrose. Chile is the fifth biggest producer on Tesco’s list, but seventh at Asda and Waitrose and a miserable 13th at Sainsbury’s. I thought Argentina’s malbecs were big sellers, but in fact they’re an “other” everywhere except Majestic (3.06%) and Tesco (1.44%), which at Sainbury’s means they’re below Belgium, Sweden, Holland and Mexico.

Aldi, the discount supermarket chain, is a curiosity: here France limps in joint fourth, behind South Africa, Chile and Italy, and level with Australia, Germany and Hungary. Spain, with 4.76% of their list, are precisely half as popular. As you might guess by those slightly weird numbers, their list is pitifully small with just 63 things on it.

The higher you go up the qualitative scale, the more France dominates – by the time you hit Berry Brothers the French are responsible for a stonking 76.04%. And there are still some surprises: New Zealand is Majestic’s No2 producer, but No9 at the Wine Society and at BBR it’s just an “other”.

But I guess the most notable thing is the number of different countries whose wines British merchants list. Here, by way of comparison, are a few foreign retailers. Wine.com, apparently America’s largest online wine distributor, does pretty well (though American online wine retailing is a complicated thing, and I couldn’t find any of the major supermarkets, so I don’t know how representative it actually is), but wine lists in Australia and France look very different to ours, and a lot less exciting.

Centum Vitis: the perfect Christmas present for the wine-lover who has everything (except taste)

The bottle Cono Sur use for their 20 Barrels pinot noir reminded me of one wine I tried while I was in Rioja. The world of wine is all about indulgence and frequently creeps over into excess, but here was the most indulgent, excessive thing I have ever encountered.

The wine is created by Bodegas Valdelana, using fruit from a pre-phylloxera vineyard. The vines are proper old, and produce so incredibly amazing they decided that the only way to treat them with due deference would be to vinify them and package them in the most incredibly amazing way they could think of. If they could only have aged it in barrels made from the tree of knowledge, bottled it in vessels hand-blown by genuine leprechauns and labelled it with signage individually crafted by angels, before finally distributing it to their grateful consumers on unicorn-drawn chariots, they surely would have done. Instead they bought the heaviest bottle known to man – 3kg when empty, our guide proudly told us – designed a metal label, packaged it with a pot of genuine gold leaf (you’re supposed to sprinkle it in your wine for extra health-giving anti-oxidants) and slapped on a $250-a-bottle price tag.

The resulting wine, apparently best drunk within two years, is sold in luxury establishments such as the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, and in exclusive American retailers at $250 a pop. The wine is OK, and would represent decent value if sold gold-free at 10% of that price. As it stands, it’s the perfect gift for the man who has everything (except taste), or Olympic weightlifters in search of a fresh challenge.

Valdelana’s little old bodega is a funny old place to visit, by the way, complete as it is with lots of fake grass and a subterranean mirrored “vineyard”. The best thing about it is the view from the door down the road to Marqués de Riscal, the brilliant Frank Gehry-designed hotel-on-top-of-a-winery, about which more, another time.

Wine review(ish): Yet another Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie

This is the last night of my holiday, my final day having been spent at a soft play centre 40 minutes’ drive away while rain teemed down outside. This is what parenthood brings you. Sure, there’s fulfilment and laughter and moments of pure joy, but there are also a million frustrating bathtimes, an enormous amount of clearing up and many, many days spent doing things that only make you happy because of the way they don’t make the people who could make you unhappy unhappy.

The CF brood are here with my in-laws, my brother-in-law, his wife and their little son. I’ve been lucky enough to marry into a family with which I am genuinely happy to holiday, but none of them care much for their wine. Thus we have subsisted on a diet of supermarket-sourced plonk, with many bottles of my traditional French summer standbys of Muscadet (sur lie, importantly) and Picpoul picked up for something in the region of €3 a bottle and duly dispatched.

And while it’s felt rather like a wasted opportunity – last summer I discovered a brilliant local wine shop and drank genuinely interesting stuff with great regularity – it’s also been, well, OK. Part of being a wine geek is finding wines that will excite and challenge you, but part of it is choosing the right kind of wine for the company you’re in. Would I have liked to have enjoyed a fortnight of vinous thrills? Undoubtedly, but not if it would have alienated everyone who shared my dinner table. There’s a time for wines that are just good enough for everyone present to enjoy but not so good that anyone feels glum about just glugging them. I think I’ve got that pretty right this time.

And by way of consolation I sneaked into a wine shop (my first of the trip) this afternoon and snagged a couple of more interesting bottles that will be appearing in my suitcase, my stemware and on here, in that order, soon.

The President, the Queen and the offensive drinks bill

Question: What is the connection between Barack Obama, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Helena Bonham-Carter, Lord Coe, Tom Hanks, Janos Csak (the Hungarian ambassador to the UK), Richard Branson, Ken Clarke, The Lady Phillips of Worth Matravers and Kevin Spacey?

Answer: They all drank £800-a-bottle Burgundy last night, and I paid for it. And you helped out too, quite probably.

Sure, when there are important visitors in town we should want to show them a good time. We might decide to give them some decent food and a bit of fine wine. But there is a point where a bit of basic generosity tips into unacceptable excess. Good wine costs £20 a bottle. Very good wine costs maybe £50 or £80 a bottle. This, though, was Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Echezeaux 1990. This isn’t just a decent bottle of Burgundy, it is a great bottle, from the most famous producer. It is generally treated with reverence, and deservedly so. It should not be served over dinner to 171 guests, washed away on a tidal wave of wine that also included English pink fizz (£25 a bottle), grand cru Chablis (£45), Champagne (£45) and vintage Port (£90). Never.

If such a quantity of incredibly fine wine had been so wastefully poured away by some Russian oligarch or Saudi oil baron, I would have considered it an act of heinous excess, but one over which I have and deserve no control. But this was a state event, funded by the taxpayer, at which the Chancellor of the Exchequer may well have blathered on to his unfortunate neighbours about the terrible state of the economy and the need for us all to tighten our belts. It is not just jealousy that makes me consider it somehow hideous (though there is, of course, jealousy).

Many people who buy wine for long-term storage will at some point have luckily happened upon one whose value rises so significantly before it is ready to be consumed that they are forced to ask themselves whether they can possibly justify opening it. There is no reason why the state’s own wine cellar should not also be subject to the same questioning, and for me there can only be one answer. If the nation has a fat store of classic, super-premium wine then it should either be sold off for everybody’s benefit, or it should be distributed a bottle at a time to appreciative citizens chosen by lottery. It is not OK for a few dozen rich people simply to open it all up one night. We also had a store of gold (and still do, just not as much), and when the chancellor decided the time was right, he sold it. It was not melted down and given away to the Lord Mayor of London and a small handful of old Etonians.

The world of fine wine is one of the least socialist parts of society. The best stuff will always be consumed by rich people who aren’t me. That’s the way it is, and I can cope with it. But that doesn’t mean that we, a nation that can’t afford to fund libraries or Sure Start centres, should be stumping up the equivalent £29,000 (a very conservative estimate, assuming everyone had one small glass of each wine and there was no wastage) on the drinks bill of the President and his pals. While Britain may eventually gain in tourist dollars from the pomp and pageantry with which we welcomed him, it cannot be right for he, the queen, our cabinet and their guests to drink away a teacher’s annual salary in a single evening.

And I bet half of them didn’t even like it. Or notice it. And that, perhaps, is what hurts most of all.

Laithwaites, and the art of selling


There is a merchant who keeps sending me brochures, but whose wines I simply cannot buy. It’s not that they are worse than everybody else’s – after all, I don’t know – it’s just that I can’t stand the way they describe them. Too many exclamation marks. Too many over-effusive descriptions. Reading their brochures is like walking through an east end market, being assaulted by over-the-top sales patters from tradesmen all the way. In the end, you just ignore the lot of them, and go somewhere quieter to do your shopping instead.

“Lavish, barrel-aged Shiraz – from one of Oz’s most exciting young winemakers!” they cry. “Be quick to savour a gloriously mature 2002 Australian Cabernet from a 5-star winery!” they shriek. “The Gold-medal winning triumph returns, richer and smoother than ever before!” they yell. “Powerfully deep and as popular as ever, keep your glass full to the brim with El Bombero!” they squawk.

And then they add something about how not only do you simply have to buy this wine, but you have to do it RIGHT NOW! “Cellardoor-priced Aussie marvel and a must for red wine lovers – act now for this amazing one-off!” they yelp. “Rich, dark and thoroughly satisfying. Don’t miss this treat from one of Portugal’s finest!” they bellow. “Seductive and elegant arrival from one of Central Otago’s best – secure your share today!” they whoop.

Then there are the constantly pushed case “deals”: more of the same, only with more exclamation marks than usual. As much as anything, I detest being sent an apparently generous £50 voucher only to discover that it is redeemable against only one, pre-selected mixed case, composed entirely of basically the same red wine only with different labels on.

I reckon I could spot the average Laithwaites description at 50 paces – they bring me out in spots and induce a chronic case of the shakes. I am Laithwaitesdescriptionphobic. So here’s a little test, for interest’s sake. How clear a style do Britain’s major wine retailers have when they describe a wine? There aren’t many wines that are available in every single major retailer, but Bollinger’s Grand Cuvée is one. Can you tell which retailer is responsible for which description?

Can you spot the patter pattern?

Pleasure, and pain

Wine has brought me a lot of pleasure, it has helped me to make friends, allowed me to meet fascinating people in wonderful places. But it has also given me gout. Not long ago, the only person I knew who had suffered from gout was Falstaff, the rotund rogue who pops up in a few Shakespeare plays, and now here I am, limping about like some mead-addled Elizabethan. Lifestyle changes are apparently required. Could this be the end of my wine adventure? Well, several other lifestyle changes will obviously need to be tried first, but dull as a life without wine would certainly be, if that’s the only way of guaranteeing a life without this ruddy pain then it’s a deal worth making.

However, I’ve had a good look at the full list of dietary factors that could contribute to an attack of gout, and for the moment I’m blaming the lentils.