Thursday, 31 August 2017

Spot the difference?

A fish supper in the offing, and 25% off six bottles at Sainsbury’s – game on! So I check the Guardian’s incomparable Fiona Beckett, who recommends the “lusciously creamy” McGuigan Founder’s Series Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2015. “Snap it up if you ever see it on promotion,” she says.   So I make it snappy.

McGuigan, eh? CJ territory. He once inflicted upon me some eye-watering McGuigan Shiraz, for which they must have interpreted from their namesake boxer the term 'pugilistic'. So I am perhaps understandably cautious. 

But I trust the magnificent Ms Beckett completely, and approach the hitherto neglected display of their wines. And I experience the wariness of a traveller presented with a foreign currency, whose banknotes all seem to look the same.

Her recommendation sits proudly on the top shelf. With a unique bottle and distinctive label, it stands out. And of course, she is spot on; it turns out to be a rich, creamy Chardonnay, a smooth and tasty Bridget Jones comfort blanket.

But what astonishes me is the array of barely distinguishable McGuigan Chardonnays on the shelves below.

There was their Estate at £4.95; their Classic at £5.50; and their Reserve at £6. Their Founder’s was on promotion indeed at £9 (reduced from £11); and then there was their Shortlist at £14. That’s five Chardonnays, with a £9 difference in price per bottle, or 260%, between bottom and top.

Now, I’m old enough to remember when European wines were considered “difficult”, when people thought it was hard to grasp the difference between Burgundy and Bordeaux, let alone their various classifications. So forgive me if I’m somewhat baffled by things at this lower, New World end of the market; but there, I thought, matters were supposed to be more straightforward.

These McGuigan brands, to me, are meaningless. Bin, Classic, Reserve, Estate, Release, Private; they are all just interchangeable terms used to suggest quality in wine. None sounds inherently superior to another. You could equally well combine them; Classic Release; Reserve Bin; Classic Reserve; Private Bin. Oh, they’ve actually used that one.

And the labels are as neutral as their names, just a kaleidoscope of parts. If there’s some hierarchy of white over silver or vice versa, it’s lost on me. Does a lion suggest better quality than a signature? What about half a lion, like a misplaced wax seal? Or a silver lion? Or a lion’s signature?

No, the only guidance discernible to me is one of price. This one must be “better” (whatever that means) because it costs 50p more. Like the famous Class sketch,  it looks down on one, but up to another. It sits on a higher shelf.

Now, if you go to Volkswagen, it’s pretty clear why a Golf is more expensive than a Polo. And in case you can’t see the difference, there are specifications to explain why one costs more than the other. So I turn for similar guidance to the UK website  where McGuigan list details of 66 – count ‘em, 66! – wines, including 10 pure Chardonnays alone.

The Founder’s Series, I discover, is “a celebration of the four generations of the McGuigan family, who have made wine their life… the pursuit of producing quality wine… this spirit and commitment to sourcing quality fruit”.

Similar, then, to the Signature brand, of which it says: “The McGuigan family has been making great quality Australian wine for generations, sourcing premium fruit from Australia’s best wine regions. The Signature range is a reflection of this history and commitment to creating wines of great quality and style”

While the Family Release, the clue perhaps being in the name, identifies itself with “The McGuigan Family love affair with wine [which] has passed through the generations and continues today with chief winemaker, Neil McGuigan. Family Release stands as Neil’s recognition of the McGuigans that came before him.”

Credit to one’s forefathers and all that, but that’s quite a lot of indistinguishable celebration, recognition and reflection of effectively the same thing.

And what about taste?

You might, for example, want to choose between the Bin Chardonnay, and the Signature Chardonnay. Best of luck with that. The Bin “is a fresh and crisp Chardonnay with flavours of white peach and ripe nectarine. It has a nice fresh finish and lingers on the palate.” Whereas the Signature “is a fresh and vibrant Chardonnay with flavours of white peach and ripe nectarine. It has a nice crisp finish and lingers on the palate.“

Or you might be weighing up the Classic against the Family Release.  The Classic: “This fresh and fruity Chardonnay has intense stone fruit and citrus character, complimented by subtle oak and a crisp finish.”. Against the Family Release: “This fresh and fruity Chardonnay has intense stone fruit and citrus character, complimented by a subtle oak and a crisp finish.” Don’t even try – the descriptions are, in fact, identical.

So how do you choose which one you want? Not by interchangeable name or undifferentiated label, by indistinguishable heritage, by similar or indeed identical tasting notes.

Presumably, you decide by price, the one clearly differentiating factor. And trust that the wine improves in corresponding increments of 50p a bottle.

Never was that old saying more appropriate – you pays your money, and you takes your choice. Of shelves.


Thursday, 24 August 2017

Co-Op Off-chance: Bonarda Shiraz

So I need a couple of bottles of cheap grog and the only place open at this time of day in distant Hampshire on a Sunday evening is the neighbourhood Co-Op. We also, as it turns out, need butter, milk, two pounds of steak, cake, three days' worth of salad, olive oil, cashew nuts, washing-up liquid, our own weight in potatoes, paper napkins, just about everything, in fact. My wife starts talking emotionally about asparagus, but I think we'll be pressed to find much more than a factory pasty out here in the sticks.

Turns out I'm wrong, yet again, and the Co-Op - which is no bigger than the cab of a Transit van and full of other customers, too - has, amazingly, most of what we need and several things we don't. I aim myself like a javelin at the wine end of the shop and come back brightly clutching a South African Chardonnay-Viognier mix and a bottle of Argentinian Bonarda Shiraz; both in the right indigent price range and with screw tops and cheerful packaging.

Much later, I get to drink them. The Bonarda Shiraz is like any regular gluey, halitotic, buttonholing Argentinian red but with just a hint of self-control: something to do with this Bonarda stuff, about which I know nothing? Likewise the Chardonnay-Viognier (why the hyphen? The red has to get by without one) is not only fine in its way, it's a tiny bit more assertively refreshing than I usually expect from a crumbum discount supermarket Chardonnay. That extra Viognier goodness, presumably.

By now, of course, I am completely in thrall to the Co-Op, who have not only got me out of a wineless jam, but have produced a nice white and introduced me to Bonarda, which is apparently taking Latin America by storm, enough even to outdo the loathsome Malbec in the easy-drinking reds section. I then wonder why I don't normally come across these very slightly intriguing two-grape mashups in my regular wine drinking. Apart from the odd Syrah/Grenache or Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, most of the time I seem to be slumped in a drab monoculture of Tempranillo or Sangiovese or Shiraz or Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir, or whatever. Can it only be the Co-Op hosting such products?

Given that, for reasons beyond my control, Waitrose is my default wine supermarket, I decide to check their listings to see if there's any evidence to back up my suspicions. Well: at my end of the price spectrum, yes, there are an awful lot of one-stop Merlots and Shirazes and Malbecs and the odd Cabernet Sauvignon; once, a Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz mix, but not much else. A bit more variety among the whites, with a Chardonnay/Viognier on special offer and a Chenin Blanc/Pinot Grigio which might or might not be a good thing, but elsewhere it's still kind of unidirectional - Soave, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, only starting to show a bit of initiative up in the near-£8 range, with a Picpoul de Pinet (actually quite nice when it's on offer) and a Muscadet (ditto), but nothing genuinely experimental. So, to an extent, my doubts are confirmed.

Sainsbury's (my other default winemart) is worryingly similar, only a cheap Merlot/Grenache and a less cheap Sauvignon Blanc/Semillion doing much to ring the changes. I can't face trawling through Tesco and all the rest to see what intriguing novelty blends they might have - which leaves me where I started, wondering only if I've made some fundamental good/bad category error and the Co-Op stuff which I thought was refreshingly different was merely a) different b) so incredibly and unexpectedly welcome on a Sunday in the provinces that I would have loved it if it had tasted like the inside of a foot spa. Also worrying that I've been duped by the guile of marketing shills into believing that I was getting something brightly toothsome to drink when in fact I was being fobbed off with assortments of under-the-radar wine that no-one could find a use for, tipped into more conventional and therefore marketable grape varieties merely in order get rid of the oddball stuff while at the same time bulking the acceptable stuff out.

Before my head starts throbbing with the involuted deviousness of it all, I decide to stop and take a stand: yes, this drink was affordable, timely and tasty; trying to second-guess the motives of the Co-Op is not only mean-spirited, but futile; let's just be grateful for small mercies, while at the same time, making a mental note to look out for wines that dare, in their own ways, to be cost-effectively slightly different. And now, on to more important matters.


Thursday, 17 August 2017

From D'Or to door – it's wine through the post

It’s years since anything remotely interesting has come through our letterbox, as it seems that the only people who use the postal service nowadays are charities, estate agents and Virgin Media.

So how about wine?  A flat, plastic ‘pouch’ of wine through your letterbox? This is the premise of Decanting Club, whose subscribers are posted a 150ml sample of wine each week. 

There will be those who see this as an ideal way of “exploring” different wines, which can then be ordered by the bottle. Then again others, of an indolent nature, will see it as an ideal way of drinking wine without going further than their hallway.

Sot let us persevere with this concept. After all,
it would appear to remove the anxiety associated with courier deliveries. And which of my generation, raised on Ice Pops in plastic tubes, will even need a glass?

The trouble is, there is something disturbingly surgical about these pouches. The red looks and feels like a blood transfusion bag. The white as if it should be attached to a pole as a saline drip. Or, worse, to the receiving end of a catheter.

One of my first thoughts was that they could be an ideal way to smuggle wine into venues where bottles are banned. Concerts, football matches, airline flights etc. On a cursory pat-down body search, it would just feel like the blubber of overweight. Or, for a certain section of the wine-drinking ‘community’, a breast implant.

Unfortunately you would then have to get your pouch open. There is a knack to opening plastic packaging, which I do not possess. Witness the half-destroyed blocks of cheese, or the frozen peas bursting from their bags as I wrench them open. Sealed to convey wine through the post without leakage, it will clearly take more than my fingers and teeth to open a wine pouch. – and in the present climate I do not intend trying to get a pair of scissors past that same security search.

So home drinking it is, then. Where I did try drinking the wine directly from the pouch, and made a complete mess of a perfectly good shirt. You try drinking from the corner of a plastic bag.

Does the food-grade plastic taint the wine? No. That concern surely faded years ago, when we started drinking water out of plastic bottles, where I suspect taint would be rather more noticeable than in an industrial-strength Red.

I was posted a perfectly serviceable, fruity yet taut Vinho Verde, which they then sell at a slightly ambitious £10.92 a bottle; and a repellent Valpolicella (£12.59), with a bouquet of stuffed toys and  bizarre notes of peanut and cardboard. But the intention is that you drink it (from a glass) in the week it arrives; do not assume, like me, that any modern wine packaging, like wine boxes and sealed goblets, is all about preserving wine indefinitely. This one may have suffered while I was distracted drinking other wines from actual bottles.

The Decanting Club costs from £4.50 to £6.50 per 150ml pouch, depending on your subscription. This, they say, is “cheaper than a glass of wine in a pub”, which it probably is. It depends on your pub. And the size of their glasses.

But £6.50 in the supermarket would get you an entire bottle, with just as good a chance of liking the result. Only, if you do like it, you can then drink the full 750ml. You can cook with the rest if you don’t. Or, if you’re CJ, drink it all the same.

Of course, these are not wines you will find in the supermarket. Which reinforces the idea that you are “exploring wine”, by trying “rare grapes from undiscovered regions”, and sharing details on their website. It’s a poor substitute for the sort of “exploring” of “undiscovered regions” I was brought up on, Boys’ Own stories of proper explorers, like Livingstone, Scott and Shackleton. But then I suppose their kind of exploring has become somewhat tiresome (“Oh no, not another unaided charity walk to the South Pole with a novel kind of hindrance…”). So we’ll have to make do with staying on our sofas and exploring the world of wine. That or the world of Haribo.

With an increasing number of wine merchants offering Enomatic tasting in store, there is competition in the sampling market. But the idea of wine coming through your letterbox each week? It’s all good fun, until someone loses an eye.

But in the end, of course, you’ll still be buying and getting a case of wine delivered, which will inevitably arrive when you’re out or in the toilet.

Unless they post you 60 pouches through your letterbox instead.


Thursday, 10 August 2017

Unpacking: Minus Tricastin

So back we come from the shattering heat of the South of France, the car weighed down on its springs by cheap espadrilles and bottles of French shower gel, and recollect the following:

- Why does anyone bother to maintain a vineyard? We rumbled, stupefied by our own air-conditioning, past hectare after hectare of the things, all baking in the dust, all perfectly green despite the near-drought conditions, but thought: this must be about the most arduous crop you could choose to rear, notwithstanding sorghum, rice or alfalfa. The ground the vines stand in is either an interminable grey clay (in the wet) or a crumbling parched mantrap, painfully impossible to walk across, whether kept free of weeds or blanketed in the things. The fruit hang at knee-height, sheer back-breaking agony to tend. They require constant care and inspection, but even the most persevering cultivator will wake up one day to find a whole year's worth gone, chomped by a tiny insect or overwhelmed by blight. And if you manage to harvest the grapes (please God with one of those mechanical harvesters) all that happens is that your pride and joy disappears into a huge tank along with everybody else's and the local co-operative takes the credit. Yes, vineyards look lovely, but they're madness, just madness.

- I hadn't properly taken on board the fact that the wines of the Tricastin region are now known generically as Grignan-les-Adhemar. Of course, when it was pointed out to me that the whopping great nuclear power station at Tricastin had more or less screwed the area's branding, it made sense. I gazed down on the nuclear site, plus the TGV line, plus the A7 autoroute and the Rhône itself, from one of the delightful hilltop villages on the eastern side and had it recalled to me that in July 2008, nearly five thousand gallons of Uranium solution were accidentally released into the Tricastin enviroment; and that was the end of Côteaux du Tricastin as we knew it, a pained reinvention as Grignan-les-Adhemar following not long after. So that was where it went, I marvelled, realising that, yes indeed, I hadn't seen any around for a while. The other thing is about this is that no-one, not even the producers, can get on with the new name. And if the French find it a mouthful, what chance have we got? And - see above - how would you feel about your precious vines - which might, just for once, be in a state of rare perfection - being rendered unsellable by your own Government's nuclear programme?

- When we got to Calais - for the boat back - I couldn't find a wine warehouse to get some cheap grog in. Rather, my wife glimpsed one on the outskirts in what struck me as a slightly unpropitious spot, so I announced that we would press on towards the ferry terminal because there were bound to be a couple more at that end of town, which made more sense to me, insofar as anything ever does. Then we got to that end of town, only to find a hellish new road layout, kilometres of reinforced fencing with barbed wire on the top, a load of French squaddies wearing fatigues and carrying machine guns, and that was that. What was once the Calais Jungle has been turned into a little piece of off-limits Nevada and so, it seems, has everything else. Too late to turn back to try and find the original warehouse and anyway, has the Booze Cruise had its day? My Brother-in-law swears not, but I remember a time when you couldn't move in Calais for roadside hoardings and giant parking areas and huge, tatty sheds, all dedicated to crummy wines. But now?

- On the other hand, once back, I discovered that the completely excellent Janelle Shane - about whom I've already written - has been hard at work again with her neural networks, this time coming up with a slew of devastingly right-on, completely artificially-induced, beer names. So many terrific ones to choose from, but my top five are:

Juicy Dripple IPA
The Actoompe (a Strong Pale Ale)
Cherry Boof Cornester (ditto)
O'Busty Irish Red (an Amber Ale)
Pimperdiginistic The Blacksmith W/Cherry Stout

Sheer genius: and, yes, the wines demand her attentions even more than before. I am going to get in touch with her right now and see what she has to say. If wine is to have any future at all, this - the world of neural networks - is, I am convinced, where it will lie. Such excitement!


Thursday, 3 August 2017

Fresh, tasty, authentic, vine-ripened… wine?

Tasty, home-made, hand-picked… food products seem to have adopted a whole range of product descriptions, presumably after the lengthy customer research which food marketers can afford. In some cases (see pic) these are presumed to be such potent messages that they dwarf even the flavour or the brand of the product. If they’re “hand-cooked”, who cares what they are? 

So. if these food marketing messages are such customer magnets, could some of them possibly work for wine?

I have never understood why a biscuit made at home would necessarily be better than one made in a biscuit factory. After all, the biscuit factory is dedicated to making biscuits, whereas a home must also function as a hotel, storage facility and entertainment complex. The biscuit factory has skilled, experienced biscuit makers; home has me.

And who would want a home-made television, say, or home-made shoes? Or home-made condoms, with their concomitant product, home-made fingerless washing-up gloves? No, I think we can do without “home-made” products, and that absolutely applies to wine. No-one is going to pay for home-made wine. There are far better, dedicated places to make wine than in someone’s home. Unless you’re talking about the Bordeaux home of the Rothschilds.

Unlike tomatoes, wines do not make a song and dance about the fact that the obvious place to ripen their grapes is on their vine. Effectively, all wine is vine-ripened. It’s hardly a selling point. It only raises the issue of where and how the other tomatoes are ripened.

This childish epithet has always troubled me. What are the alternatives? Tasteless? And its crude simplicity would sit particularly unhappily with the supposed sophistication of wine. Imagine grand Burgundies and distinguished clarets, all shelved under a sign shouting “Tasty!” With perhaps a little shelf off to the side for Pinot Grigio.

Wine is essential.
Move on.

The idea of hand-picking takes on completely different connotations when it is on food packaging as opposed to a UKIP leaflet. And of course hand-picking is equally attractive for wine, where the mass-production alternative has a vehicle trundling along the lines, effectively hoovering the grapes off the vines – along with any birds, small rodents, insects etc who happen to be in the vine at the time. “Tasty”. Whereas at Domaine de la Romanée Conti, the grapes are not only hand-picked, but hand-sorted and individually examined for health. So hand-picked wine? Yes please – if not at £3,000 a bottle

What, like Beaujolais Nouveau? 



Specially selected
Not just ‘selected’, like everything else on the shelves. Funnily enough, when this epithet appears on wine labels, “specially selected” is always in the cheaper ranges, never the good wines which discerning customers specially select for themselves. 

Responsibly sourced
Have you been sourcing wine irresponsibly? Buying it from the corner shop? Buying wine from the property said to be ‘next door to’ the celebrated vineyard? Ordering one of those ‘mystery’ cases, which ‘might’ contain bottles worth some phenomenal amount of money, but will probably contain the bottles which couldn’t otherwise be sold? If you don't source your wines responsibly, you deserve all you’ve got coming.

("Handcrafted, responsibly sourced salad"? Give me strength…) 

What actually is it that makes a pasta “authentic”? Italian flour? Italian eggs? Combined in a factory in the Midlands, but by someone called Elena? By these loose kinds of criteria, pretty much all wine is authentic wine. Unless it has another term attached, like “Chocolate”, “Fruit” or “Alcohol-Free”.

Or, of course, if it’s fake. It’s not just expensive wine which gets faked; the authorities once uncovered a line of fake Jacob’s Creek. The bottles could be distinguished because they had misspelt ‘Australia’ as “Austrlia” on the label, a mistake many of us might make after a few bottles of Jacob’s Creek. No wonder they didn’t attempt to fake Trockenbeerenauslese.

Ah yes, “market” produce, always a winner. Market fruit, with its attractive manhandled bruising; and market vegetables, quite possibly past their sell-by date but you wouldn’t know because they haven’t got one. Call any corner of a modern city a Market and you’re quids in, as long as you take your produce out of its hygenic plastic wrapping and display it on a slab of wood.

But what kind of market might we be talking about for wine? Perhaps one of those weekly affairs in a little French town, with local wines for just a few Euro? Oh yes! Count us in! Just beware of “market” wine labelled with a bit of brown paper and only the word VIN in felt-tip. They’ve probably just soaked the labels off some fake Jacob’s Creek.