Friday, October 17, 2008

Don't Blame Me, I'm French

Was out with a group of Bordeaux winemakers the other night who were plugging their white wines. Once upon a time, white vines outnumbered red in the region, but today, they occupy less than 10% of the vineyards. A shame, and for two reasons. Firstly, there are several vineyards in Bordeaux producing undernourished red wines that would be far better off switching to whites. Secondly, the wines, based on Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, with a little help from the aromatic Muscadelle, can be excellent. The top wines such as Smith Haut Lafitte command prices similar to top white Burgundies, and are just as good, while at the cheaper end, wines such as Dourthe No 1 at around £6-7 bring a smile to your face in the way that simiularly priced reds seldom do.

I told the winemakers this, and they were very happy. But I then asked one of them what would make a customer pick a white Bordeaux off the shelf in preference to another style. 'Because as you have said, it is good.' No, you don't understand, what would make them pick white Bordeaux rather than other similarly priced wines of similar quality. 'Because it is very good.' Hmm - head, brick wall... But how do you get the message across that white Bordeaux is very good? 'That is your job...'

So in other words, if white Bordeaux sales are not what they could be in the UK, it is my fault. Nothing to do with the people who make it. It's my fault. Now I understand...

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Bailey-ing Out

Sad news that week that two of the wine world's more interesting winemakers have died. Didier Dagueneau, the wild man who took Pouilly Fumé to another dimension, was killed in a microlight, while Bailey Carrodus, the quiet but passionate founder of Yarra Yering, also passed away. A couple of years ago, Wine & Spirit did a feature about 'small producers' and I was asked to write something about one of my favourites - I chose Bailey....


Suddenly Bailey Carrodus was somewhere else. ‘Oh look, two sulphur-crested cockatoos.’ It was 1988, and I was a backpacker visiting the Yarra Valley in a beaten-up Ford Escort. I’d been working in a bottle shop in Melbourne where I’d been captivated by the wines of Yarra Yering. Their purity and elegance stood out above the Australian norm, while their labels – like photocopies of photocopies of shaky handwriting – also differentiated them from the masses.

On that day in 1988, the welcome he extended to this scruffy young Pom was just the same as that for the well-heeled Melbournites in their top-of-the-range Holdens who’d arrived at the cellar door at the same time. Not unfriendly, but at the same time detached – you sensed that part of him was operating in a parallel dimension. He had wine to sell, but he was far more captivated by the (stunning) view from his hillside estate.

I’ve met Bailey a few times since, and that other-worldliness has if anything increased with time. He’s a man who moves at his own pace, makes his own decisions and isn’t too swayed by public opinion. Nevertheless, public opinion says that his wines are very good, especially the reds. Though past normal retiring age, Carrodus is still experimenting. He has Portuguese grapes, Sangiovese and Barbera, and on my last visit to the winery, there was a barrel in the cellar of what he called ‘Cheeky Tart Viognier’, an astonishingly creamy and aromatic wine which has been lightly fortified. Truly a small but perfectly formed winery.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

When the best isn't good enough

One of the definitions in my Concise Oxford Dictionary of the word 'premium' is 'of best quality. This seems to have escaped those who sell wine. Today, wines touted as 'premium' products are usually bog-standard, entry-level fodder.

So what's above premium? First there was super-premium. Then ultra-premium. Then Icon. This last was a bit of an an unfair tactic in the Premium game, just not cricket etc. And it wasn't long before people were asking whether Icon was one word or two. So profound thanks to Michael Mondavi for returning to playing by the rules. His new Napa Cabernet, set to be released this autumn, will be called M by Michael Mondavi, and it is to be, wait for it, a super-ultrapremium wine. Has Mr M jumped a category in labelling it thus? Is super-ultrapremium better or worse than ultra-superpremium? Discuss. Oh, and it'll be $200. A super price. Or maybe an ultra price.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Château N'Existe Pas

A lovely story has broken of how the US magazine Wine Spectator has paraised a restaurant that doesn't exist. American author Robin Goldstein invented sent details of the fictitious Osterio L'Intrepido in Milan to the magazine, along with a fee of $250 and wasn't surprised to receive one of the magazine's Awards of Excellence. Read more about it here.

Reminds me of an April fool that Farr Vintners put out a few years ago in which all the wines were ones that for whatever reason had never been made, such as 1992 DRC Montrachet and 1984 Château Musar. Lay the phoniness on sufficiently sticky, and some of it somewhere will stick. Not of course with North of England-based wine writers, oh no. Never. Honest. But the 1978 Le Pin we drank last night was superb...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Blend your way out of a corner

First things first. Don't try this at home. On the assumption that you follow the Huckleberry Finn principle and do the opposite of what I suggest, let's proceed. Am off to Spain tomorrow for a trip around Galicia - I'm expecting a version of Catalonia but with more in-breeding and more drinkable wines...

As a farewell meal, and to celebrate the two bairns receiving especially complimentary school reports, we spent an afternoon trudging around for a new curtain pole and then going to watch Kung Fu Panda - 5/10, some funny bits but very crap philosophically in that you-have-the-power-within-you type of way. On return Chez De Bois, it was already early evening, so I hastily bunged some chicken bits, chopped onions, garlic, herbs etc. into a very hot oven - OK, as hot as a built-in Whirlpool will manage - before proceeding to mount the curtain pole - desist with your fnarr, fnarr's. An hour later, the pole and the chook were both ready, but I'd forgotten to get something to drink. First port of call was Elio Grasso Gavarini Langhe Nebbiolo 2006. Unoaked quasi-Barolo, from one of Piedmont's top estates. Sadly not the right choice, at least for the occasion. With a little more persuasion, it began to show lovely wild, ferrous yet shy flavours, and the promise of further pleasures for the patient, but straight from the cellar, it was a sulky adolescent.

Next try, South Australia, and Noon Eclipse 1998. I know, a massive change of tack. But I remember visiting McLaren Vale in 1999 when I was the guest judge at the regional show there and being very impressed by Master of Wine Drew Noon's rich yet subtle reds. He even featured in my speech at the judge's dinner - I'm afraid I sang, 'Drew Noon, you saw me standing alone...' On return to blighty, bought a mixed case of 1998 Noon reds (Isabella's birth year) and I think this is the first I've uncorked (and yes, I bought them before Parker showered them with points). And a lovely wine it is too, rich, but not one of those fruit bombs, lush in the right places, but with genuine terroir characters emerging. Full of those slightly ever-so-minty, tar-like edges that many beefier Aussie reds acquire with time, and very much fighting fit on its 10th birthday. And yet... I don't know what was the problem, but it just didn't Do The Do with the chicken.

And so the blend was born. The Nebbiolo was young, perfumed, and gawky, the Eclipse more bumptious, yet still with fine bone structure beneath it's larger exterior. Both had a tar-like edge, neither was a bimbo. And the blend? The 50-50 mix that is fuelling this post seems to extract all the fine points of each wine. It has the vigour, perfume and ferrous edge of the Grasso, plus the earthier, plusher liquorice edges of the Noon. A lovely combination that tonight at least - and this is after giving both constituents a chance to open up and show more of their true colours - is better than the sum of the parts.

But as I said at the start, DON'T try this at home

Friday, June 27, 2008

Brazil - promising wine, shame about the name...

Brazil, or for those of a Latino bent Brasil. Land of carnival, poetic football and strange body hair arrangements. Winewise, it's so far not made the same degree of splash as its fellow South Americans Chile and Argentina. Even Uruguayan wines are easier to track down. But Pele's homeland offers some surprisingly good grog. 'No we don't do two harvests a year,' I was told in no uncertain terms at the recent London Wine Fair by one of the country's many impossibly gorgeous, doe-eyed beauties. 'They only do that in the north.' And it's true. The climate is such in the tropical reaches of northern Brazil that there's not much difference between the seasons. Clever farmers can irrigate their vines in such a way that they do get two crops a year - five in two years, if they really go for it.

But further south, grape growing is far more conventional, and there are a number of producers whose wines are seriously tasty. Names to look out for are Salton (not to be confused with Boots' sun-tan lotion...), Lidio Carraro and Miolo. And it's a Miolo wine that's in the glass in front of me. No, it's not the Merlot, which could compete with some rather more rarefied Merlots from other parts of the world. Nor is it the elegant Bordeaux lookalike RAR. And it's not the Quinta do Seival, made from the Portuguese grapes Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro and Tinta Roriz. But this 2005 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tannat is still very attractive, with juicy berry fruit and something of the cherry and chocolate dryness of Tannat lurking in the background. The only carp I have about it is the name. You want a name something that speaks of a dynamic, passionate young country, a name as sexy and svelte as Gisele Bundchen, as lively as the Mardi Gras, a name like....Gran. That's right, Gran. GRAN?!? Never mind Gisele, Gran puts you more in mind of Liz Smith.... So Miolo, tasty wine, fully deserving a wider audience, but as far as the moniker is concerned, you need to go back to the drawing board.

And for the rest of you, the place to find some of the excellent Miolo reds in the UK is through Coe Vintners.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Coo-ee Pouilly

'Would your mum like this?'

Jill's mum is lovely, but where wine is concerned, she doesn't stray too far beyond the safe haven of cheap new World Chardonnay. But New World Chardonnay isn't what it was. Where once it could be caricatured as the juice from tinned fruit cocktail (the sort that had ONE oddly coloured, peculiarly small cherry in it) infused with a couple of 2-by-4's, today there seems to be a welcome move towards wines that are lighter and fresher, less oaky but more drinkable. The sort of wine I was supping tonight, in fact. Only this wasn't New World Chardonnay, it was a white Burgundy in the shape of the 2007 Domaine Cordier Mâcon Terroir de Charnay (as you'd pronounce 'Chardonnay' after a few glasses too many). Delicious, moreish wine, lively and zesty, and with a bit of a story to tell beyond the 'I'm a lovely apple-y wine' intro. Under a tenner at Majestic - a good price for a tasty wine from a star producer.

For me the Mâconnais is a happy-hunting ground for those looking for a halfway house between stereotypical New World and Old World Chardonnay. When the winemaker gets it right - and increasing numbers do - it's ripe, but it doesn't stray into overripeness, it's fruity but it's not JUST fruity, and it's complex without being too bookish. Spurred on by the Cordier wine, I delived in the cellar and found a Château des Rontets 2000 Pouilly-Fuissé Clos Varambon. This is where Mâconnais Chardonnay - and Pouilly-Fuissé is the top spot in the Mâconnais - differs from most New World Chardonnay. The wine was approaching its eighth birthday in vigorous middle age, still fruity, but with more interesting nutty notes on top of the classic apple crumble and quince flavours, and with an almost briny edge - the fact that the last glass tasted better than the first suggested that it still had plenty of life ahead of it. The excellent Vine Trail stocks younger vintages

I have a strong feeling that my mother in law would have loved both wines, probably the zippier Cordier before the ever-so-slightly louche Rontets, but she wasn't here, and the assembled company haven't even leave her any dregs to try tomorrow. Sorry Beryl, have to save your conversion to the Burgundian cause for another day.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


The Alexei Sayle line is, 'Is it me, or is it bald, fat and Scouse in here?'

The Simon Woods line is, 'Is it me, or are people missing the point in giving info on wines to normal people?'

Let's transfer a typical spiel into a different genre...

'This hand-crafted cheese comes from Daisy and Annabel, two five-year-old Fresians who graze on south-west facing slopes of rye, vetch and wheatgrass at altitudes between 1000m and 1200m in the French Alps. They are milked in the state-of-the-art dairy at 5am and their milk is then stirred for ten minutes anti-clockwise before rennet (sourced from from the stomach of Daisy's now-deceased daughter Buttercup) and the juice of two organic Valencian limes is added. The mixture is then stored in a new Italian stainless steel bucket for two hours etc. etc.'

Is it any wonder that many people just flit past the wine coverage in mags and newspapers?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Make mine a Becks - wine, that is

News is that David Beckham has bought his wife a vineyard in Napa Valley. Apparently the produce will be just for friends and family, but maybe the talented twosome are looking for things to do once Becks hangs up his boots. Footballers Wines, and all that. Makes you wonder what the new brew will be called. Both Chateau David and Chateau Victoria already exist. But Domaine Ballons d'Or has a certain ring to it...

Friday, May 02, 2008

(New) World Weary

Maybe it was my mood - dicky tummies all round chez Woods this week, probably the result of too much birthday cake (Isabella was 10 on Monday) . Maybe it was just the range of wines - a clutch of non-European reds that had been threatening to fall off the sample rack and create purple havoc on the carpet. But it's a rare occasion when I open a dozen bottles of wine - some of it £20+ - without finding something I want to drink that evening. However, it happened this lunchtime...

There was nothing I could complain loudly about in any of the wines. Nothing corked (most had Stelvins), nothing faulty, nothing too ripe, nothing too green, but just nothing that made me want to swallow the wines rather than spit them into the sink. The list included three wines from Howard Park, formerly one of Western Australia's top wineries, but on the strength of this trio (Leston Shiraz, Scotsdale Cabernet and the Cabernet/Merlot), struggling to keep up with others. There was Redbank, whose wines used to represent the best of Central Victoria. Admittedly it was Long Paddock rather than the superior Sally's Paddock, but it didn't make me want to trade up to the superior cuvée. There was Chapel Hill Shiraz from McLaren Vale, which was competent, better than competent, with bags of fruit and an earthy edge to boot. Good, but not what I want to drink - I want something with a little more soul. There were two reds from a Cape winery called Ondine, both promising but marred by the smoky rubber/bonfire edge which even my kids can spot. And from South America, there were a reduced*** Argie Cabernet and a a so-so Rapel Cabernet. A sign of just how banal the wines were is that the Blackburn & James Californian Merlot - £6.99 from the Co-op - was actually one of the better wines.

So I'm heading back into the cellar to find something I want to drink tonight. It will probably be a slightly faulty Old World offering, but so what? There's too much clean and sterile wine - I prefer wine with a few battle scars.

*** ever smelt that odd rubbery/metallic fizzy smell (you know what I mean by a fizzy smell...?) that you get when you open a can of beer? That's reduction - the opposite of oxidation, for those who can remember any school chemistry. In small amounts, it can benefit a wine, but in excess, it squashes the flavours.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Weird Weekend Whites

A week at the International Wine Challenge hasn't diminished my enthusiasm for decent juice. However, a final day of first round judging that saw our panel bin a number of bland, boring wines - fault-free but character-free too - left me craving something decidedly left-field (when did I start using the term 'left-field'? How many Brits are aware that the phrase relates to the University of Illinois College of Medicine?)

So it's been weird white weekend - not a plethora of them, but just a couple that are off the beaten track. The first will probably always be so. Nero di Troia is one of those intriguing grapes that is making southern Italy such a happy hunting ground for fascinating red wines. Cantine Carpentiere does make a red version, but they also use it for a pink and a white too. The official authorities don't recognise the white form, so the 2006 version available from For The Love of Wine (01359 270377, doesn't state its vintage. But for a tenner, it's a delight, and if you'd told me it was an Alsace Pinot Gris with a hint of Gewurz, I'd have believed you - plump, lush smoky peach with floral edges, naughty but nice, like Bet Lynch in her prime. Fatty pork, pongy cheese or - if your conscience will stand it - foie gras.

Hopefully the second will become better known. Galicia - north west Spain - is best known wine-wise for the Albariños of Rias Baixas. The Spaniards hail them as their country's finest whites, but I'm still to be fully convinced. I'd put in a word for the Verdejos of Rueda - look out for Bellondrade y Lurton in particular - and the Godellos of Valdeorras. Am currently squaffling my way through the Val de Sil Godello Sobre Lias 2006, a white with punch, personality, grip and authority, and a big peachy booty to boot. It's too butch for most seafood, although a lobster wouldn't carp (might as well remain on the marine side - and marine is an anagram of remain). But I had a glass of this lunchtime with an extremely pleasant and equally garlicky chicken salad butty - yum to the power of yum***. Find it for £10.75 at Laymont & Shaw - the web-site says 2005, but they should be on 2006 by now.

*** yum>1, for the mathematically-minded

Sunday, April 13, 2008


The relief of finally being back on proper wines after my session with the brands is immense. Rather than reach for magnums (magna?) of numerous grands crus, I've eased myself back into the groove gently, with wines in the £10-£15 bracket. Star of these has been the Château de Fosse Seche Saumur Blanc ‘Arcane’ (~£12.50 Top Selection), a rich but dry Chenin Blanc whose appley yumminess wooed the senses, while its more profound minerally side wowed the intellect. Just a super, super wine.

However, I'm about to inflict further punishment on my palate. I'm writing this on the 18:50 from Leeds to London where tomorrow sees the start of the International Wine Challenge. My first UK wine job was as a spittoon emptier-cum-bottle bagger-cum-cork puller on the Challenge, and I spent a number of years as coordinator of the competition. It's been a roaring success, and as a result - this is Britain after all - has come in for some flak, in particular about the quality of judges. In my time, the disparaging term used was 'Oddbins managers'. Never mind that the typical Oddbins/Majestic manager of that era used to taste far more widely than the old duffers who got their MWs back in the Dark Ages, nor that were are many high-up members of the wine trade who seemed incapable of spotting corked bottles, the mud stuck.

Now, wannabe judges have to show their mettle before becoming full judges, but even here, some bad 'uns still slip through the net. I remember chairing a panel a couple of years ago where we were tasting Barossa Shiraz. It's not my favourite style of wine, but there were several absolutely classic wines and I marked all of them highly. The other two tasters struggled to find a bronze medal between them. What's the problem with them, I asked one. 'I never drink wines like this....'

The latest tightening-up on the judging front is to sign up panel leaders for the whole competition in order to maintain some sort of consistency. So for most of the next fortnight, I'm living out of a suitcase by night and tasting at the Barbican by day. Wish me, my teeth, my liver and my sanity the best of luck...

Friday, April 04, 2008

Day Twenty-Two - The Verdict

As I finally sit down to some wine I'd choose to drink, here's a final verdict on the UK's top wine brands based on my experience with them over the past three weeks. So counting down from the - let's be polite - least good to the least bad...
(numbers in brackets indicate their position in terms of UK sales)

10 - Blossom Hill (3)
I hadn't expected a great deal from California's best-selling brand, and nothing I tried changed my view.

9 - Stowells (5)
Without a Tempranillo that I can still unfortunately taste, this would have jumped several places, thanks to a surprisingly good Veneto Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio.

8 - Hardy's (1)
Eight wines, with only Nottage Hill Chardonnay having something positive to say for itself. And people wonder why Australia's reputation isn't what it used to be...

7 - Echo Falls (9)
As with Blossom Hill, I hadn't high hopes here, but it delivered a little more than expected. Still only OK, but better than mediocre.

5= - Kumala (10)
I'll be interested to see whether a new broom here improves these wines. Nothing too bad on show, but nothing too good either.

5= - Gallo (2)
Hard to believe that the White Zin was my pick here. Nothing wrong with the other wines either, although the Sycamore Canyon pair aren't good value at their regular price.

4 - Wolf Blass (6)
A mixed performance, with a good Cabernet, but some rather top-heavy whites - nothing dreadful about them, but not styles I want to encourage.

3 - Lindemans (7)
Were it not for the muddy vanilla flavours that clouded the reds, these would have scored higher. Bin 65 Chardonnay was as good as any of the whites.

2 - Banrock Station (8)
Solid performance, with the results perhaps skewed upwards by the pleasant maturity of the 2003 Shiraz, not a vintage currently available.

1 - Jacob's Creek (4)
The best by a significant margin, with wines that seem to have been made by a person with a soul rather than by a parrot with a recipe book.


It's been a very interesting three weeks with many ups and downs. To sum up...

1) Jacob's Creek is the big brand for customers to buy and for wine producers to emulate.
2) Please can the Americans stop drinking Australian reds, then the producers might revert to making the wines that won them so many friends in the UK in the first place. Clumsy vanilla flavours abound - why?
3) Speaking of the other side of the pond, why can't California do a brand as good as Jacob's Creek, Montana and Casillero del Diablo?
4) If any wine lover want to cut their consumption, switch to Big Brands - you won't want to finish many of the bottles.
5) As I said here, Len Evans got it right - avoid mediocre wine.

I'll say that again - avoid mediocre wine. Affordable wine doesn't have to be banal - watch this space over the next few months for proof of that...

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Day Twenty-One - Here we go, here we go, here we go...

Am I older and wiser at the end of my three weeks on Big Brands? I think I'll save the summing up for tomorrow, but I have a final pair of wines, both from Constellation and both with - in best-selling brand terms at least - sizeable price tags.

Kumala Zenith Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz 2006, Western Cape
Not bad at all, and a big improvement on the 2006 Cab/Shiraz (although not on the 2007). It's a bit simple, but there's none of that charred/bonfire edge, and the fruit is fresh rather than overripe. Berries and blackcurrants, but the finish is slightly hard - will be interested to see what the new brooms at Kumala achieve with this wine is subsequent vintages. £8.40 though... I expect slightly better for that.

Banrock Station The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz Reserve 2006, South Eastern Australia
I'm pleased I'm finishing my Big Brand Diet with this wine, as it's among the best there have been. There's punchy red and black fruit flavours, but there's also a hint of earthy restraint plus a smidgeon of eucalyptus. And despite its 14% alcohol, it's still refreshing. A reasonable buy at £9.40, but apparently it will be available at half-price from time to time - if you see it on offer, fill yer boots.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Day Twenty - giddy kipper time

Not much time for writing on this, my penultimate evening of Big Brand-dom, so I'll get straight down to business and a pair of Aussie Shirazes.

Lindemans Bin 50 Shiraz 2007, South Eastern Australia
I enjoyed Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay but I've found the reds (see Days 15 and 17) just too confected. This the best of the three, and it's licorice-tinged black fruit flavours are quite appealing. But once again, I wish someone had let that bright fresh fruit alone, rather than try and tart it up with oak.

Banrock Station Shiraz 2003, South Eastern Australia
Yes, 2003. Not many people bother to give Australian reds the bottle age that they deserve. Shame, as even cheap wines can be all the better for extra time in bottle (as Oz's JC vertical showed). Certainly there's a rather attractive meaty character emerging as I swirl the glass. Hmmm, it feels a little hollow, and I don't think it's going to last much longer, but I quite like the mellow fruitiness here, and the relaxed, leather-and-fig-y finish. Doubt whether you'll find any still in the shops - this came direct from Constellation - but maybe it's worth stashing away a couple of bottles from current vintages for 2010.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Day N-N-N-N-Nineteen

'Bored with Shiraz? Why not try [fill in grape of the moment].' I really wish there weren't articles that began in such fashion. Chardonnay is probably the grape that attracts the most flak, but when you question those who pronounce themselves members of the ABC - Anything But Chardonnay - movement, you find that their experiences with the grape are confined to one country and one price range. What if ABC stood for Anything But Chicken, with the members eschewing chook because of their experiences in KFC? Does that make sense? Similarly, I'm fed up with wine producers who say that they are making 'more complex' wines when all they're doing is adding another grape variety. Bolting on another flavour doesn't make something more complex - ketchup on your risotto sir?

Where was this argument going? Oh yes, alternative grape varieties. Tempranillo is Spain's main contribution to the world of grapes, and having tired of the main French red grapes - Cab Sauv, Merlot, Shiraz, Pinot Noir etc - many producers around the world are now planting some. Success so far has been limited, but that's not Tempranillo's fault. Sometimes the clones planted weren't best suited to the vineyard, sometimes it's just the winemaker's lack of experience with that's to blame. After all, a chef used to cooking only beef would take times to come to terms with quail.

So today's theme is Tempranillo, with two wines from opposite ends of the world

Stowells Tempranillo NV, La Mancha, Spain
This is by far and away the worst wine I've tried on the Big Brand Diet - in fact it's the worst wine I've tried since my home-brew escapades last year. Scrawny, and lacking in fruit, with a crude sweetness and some oxidation, it feels like an old wine that someone has tried - unsuccessfully - to freshen up. Avoid this at all costs. For an affordable taste of the real Spain, try Garnacha from Campo de Borja or Monastrell from Jumilla.

Hardy's Nottage Hill Shiraz Tempranillo 2006, South Eastern Australia
A vast improvement on the Stowells, but as I mentioned in my intro blurb, adding an extra grape doesn't make for a better wine. This still tastes like cheap Australian red, with that slightly confected jammie dodger fruit and an excess of vanilla flavour. Once again, why the need for the oak?

(for Australia's best Tempranillo, check out Pondalowie)

Monday, March 31, 2008

Day Eighteen - the age of majority

The whites are all finished and today it's the final pair of pinks. That wine is governed by fashion is undeniable. The latest vintage in Bordeaux gets all the praise and prices soar in the en primeur madness, while wines from the same châteaux that are just as good and have several more years bottle age are readily available at half the price. Lower down the scale, the desire to be seen to be drinking the right stuff means that perfectly decent Riesling, Semillon and even Cabernet Sauvignon are by-passed in favour of inferior Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Merlot. Rosé wine has also proved a popular hit in recent years, although anyone with half a palate struggles to see why. Meanwhile producers fall over themselves to release wave after wave of wishy-washy wines whose only positive attribute is their pretty colour. Often the bottles advise you to serve the wines 'well chilled' - this is because they taste foul at room temperature. Or am I being unfair? Let's see how these two perform...

Echo Falls White Zinfandel 2006, California
It's not my style of wine, in fact, I'd be pushed to describe it as wine. But as a refreshing, fruit (bramble) flavoured drink, it's not a total monster, even if I preferred the weightier Gallo version.

Kumala Zenith Rosé 2006, Western Cape Simple, plump wine, like tinned strawberry juice, there's a lot of flavour here, but it's a flavour I associate more with kiddy cordial than wine. That would be fine if it were cheap, but at £8.40, it's not. Hopefully the Bruce Jack-inspired Kumala will be making better wines than this (see coda to this post).

Why aren't both of these on 2007 vintages? I will pour myself a small glass of each this evening - I do not expect either will be finished....

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Day Seventeen - and not yet a woman

Whatever happened to The Regents? Can't say I miss them, but I am missing 'proper' wine, as in wine I want to enthuse about. While most of the brands so far have been drinkable, in general they've been the liquid equivalent of lift music. But at least I'm on the finishing straight. Two reds tonight, both Aussies.

Lindemans Bin 40 Merlot 2007, South Eastern Australia
Australia has struggled to get Merlot right. OK, the whole world has struggled to get Merlot right, but given the success that the winemakers Down Under have had with other grape varieties, the dearth of decent Merlot comes as a surprise. Is this one cred or crud? It's actually not bad. It has this core of chocolatey plummy fruit, plus a herbal, leafy edge. But once again, there's this rather crude sweet vanilla edge getting in the way. Why are so many people still cocking up decent grapes by inappropriate use of oak? Here's it's a like a pretty ten-year-old girl who's been let loose on her mum's make-up - she thinks she looks grown-up, but everyone else knows she looks better without the slap. Please Lindemans, you're nearly there with this wine - why not try it without oak for once?

Wolf Blass Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, South Australia
Used to work in a place in Melbourne called Albert Park Cellars. We had tastings every weekend, and each Friday afternoon, this guy would come in, try what was on show but still buy the same wine - Wolf Blass Yellow Label. One week, Petaluma wines were on tasting, and he was so impressed that he left with a bottle of their Chardonnay. 'Great, we've cracked it,' we thought.The next week, he was back to taste the wines - and buy a bottle of Wolf Blass Yellow Label - grrrr. How's the 2006? Actually rather nice, with lush berry and plum flavours, something like mint or eucalyptus lurking in the background, and a soft finish. There is a note of vanilla-y oak here, but unlike in the Bin 40, here it's in balance with the rest of the wine. And while it's not a crime to drink it now, I wouldn't be surprised to see it still going strong in 2012.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Day Sixteen - it's raining in my heart

It's raining outside too, but it's wetter in my heart. No, Jill hasn't left me, it's just that at that time of day when I'm normally pulling the cork on something appealing, I find myself with three bottles of wine that I'm not expecting much from. Still, if I start with my expectations low, then I may be pleasantly surprised. And in the wines I've tried so far, it's not been entirely depressing. Jacob's Creek is still the star turn, but I hadn't expected Echo Falls and Stowells to perform as they did. I'll be on more from both labels in the next few days, but today I'm trying Chardonnay blends, two of them from Banrock Station, the eco-friendly bit of Hardy's Australia, or Constellation Wines as I think it's now called. Yes, there is a Banrock Station with vineyards, but as with Jacob's Creek, very little of the wine under the label comes from there.

Banrock Station Colombard Chardonnay 2005, South Eastern Australia
I'd have expected a younger vintage of a wine like this - let's see if it's showing its age. Hmm, the Colombard freshness has dissipated leaving a rather simple Chardonnay with reasonable lychee and peach flavour, but none of the zip it would have had a couple of years ago.

Banrock Station The Reserve Chardonnay Verdelho 2006, South Eastern Australia
This is a bit fresher. It's also a bigger wine, but it's not overblown, with the musky pear edge of Verdelho adding extra layers to the peach'n'citrus Chardonnay. It's not as butch as Thursday's Chardonnays, although its extra subtlety doesn't mean it's a more interesting wine - still think I'd take Bin 65. Not a smart buy at its regular price of £9.40, but look out for half-price deals from time to time.

Wolf Blass Red Label Chardonnay/Semillon 2007, South Eastern Australia
The Blass Chardie was the plumpest on Thursday, and it's also the most buxom of today's trio. My mouth is left feeling rather overwhelmed by both ripeness and by the 'heat' of alcohol, even though it's only 13%. Not a style I admire or want to encourage, like a fat girl wearing a thong.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Day Fifteen - This time next week...

As someone who cut their wine teeth in Australia, and whose sister, uncle, aunt, cousins and various other rellies live there, I'm favourably disposed to Down Under. My first wine trade job was picking grapes in the Yarra Valley, while my second was working in a Melbourne bottle shop (our closest rival was at the time managed by Jeff Sinnott, who now makes great wines in New Zealand). But while ten years ago, I'd have pointed those in search of decent, affordable and reliable red wine to the Aussie aisles, now I'd direct them elsewhere - Chile, southern France, central Spain, southern Italy, Portugal. As volumes have grown, too many of the wines seem to have lost their souls. How do the current crop compare?

Lindemans Bin 55 Shiraz/Cabernet 2007, South Eastern Australia
Gentle, juicy but too varnish-like for pleasure, and with that really unpleasant claggy, daggy vanilla character cocking it up. Is it just too young? Yesterday's Chardonnay was the pick of the trio, but on current showing, this is just factory wine.

Hardy's Stamp Series Shiraz/Cabernet 2006, South Eastern Australia
If I wanted black fruit pastilles, I'd buy black fruit pastilles. Sorry Hardy's but I just don't get on with this at all. I want my wine to have a little edge, not be just confected and blobby.

Wolf Blass Red Label Shiraz/Cabernet 2006, South Eastern Australia
The old joke goes, Why did the Irishman wear three condoms? To be sure, to be sure, to be sure. This wine has sure-ness, safe-ness written all over it. Those who remember school-level chemistry may remember that reduction is the opposite of oxidation. This wine just hasn't had enough exposure to air, as is evident by the 'reduced' smell - like metallic, rubber wafer biscuits, and artificially 'bright' fruit flavours. Minor reduction can dissipate with time in the glass - this seems to be here to stay. Where's the spice? Where's the gutsy fruit? Where - and I find it bizarre to be saying this - is the unsubtle but alluring oak? Gave it to Jill and she said, 'Like you'd get in a cheap French cafe...'

I find it a sad day when Australia, the country which for many people invented everyday red wine, has a trio like this in its best-sellers. And I also find it astonishing in what is patently a red-wine country that for each of these brands, the Chardonnay outclasses the Shiraz/Cabernet. So tonight, Matthew, I may go and see if there is anything left in yesterday's Chardonnay bottles.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Day Fourteen - don't they all taste the same?

'They all taste the same to me...' I've heard such a line trotted out by two quite different groups of people. Firstly, by people like my mum, a wise, funny woman, whose generous nature is only sometimes undermined by her acerbic wit. I've given up trying to appeal to her tastebuds which seem to react to food but - through stubbornness I suspect - refuse to be wooed by wine. And when she says that 'they' - all wines in other words - all taste the same, I resist the urge to say, 'Oh, and you've tried all of them of course.' A lost cause, but I'll keep plugging away.

The second group are the wine snobs, those who poo-poo others who drink beneath their level. A constant diet of classed growth clarets/Parker-95+-ers has made them lose touch with what normal people drink. From a sloitary experience several years ago, they think they know what bog-standard Australian Chardonnays are like - 'They all taste the same...'

Sadly some wine writers fall into this latter category, but not of course yours truly. So the next couple of sessions are going to see my trying the wares of a trio of Australia's most famous names. Shiraz/Cabernet tomorrow, but today it's Chardie.

Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay 2007, South Eastern Australia
The back-label description has this word 'stonefruit' on - when did this (like vanillin) become common parlance? Anyway, this is what I call Ronseal wine, in that it does what it says on the tin/bottle. The easy melon and peach (that's one of the stonefruit family) flavours are gentle and soothing, and that edge of slightly resinous oak that poked out a bit to start with seems to be receding. There's some crispness to the finish too. Pas mal at all...

Hardy's Nottage Hill Chardonnay 2007, South Australia
This is in a richer, plumper style, with the fruit verging more towards the tropical - guava, passionfruit etc - while the oak has a stronger, but still not too intrusive presence. I prefer the slightly fresher style of the Lindemans, but again this is far from undrinkable.

Wolf Blass Yellow Label Chardonnay 2007, South Australia
Wolfie - about whom several books on political incorrectness could be written - is better known for reds than whites and I've found the Chardonnay rather overblown on occasions. This smells more subtle, with a creamy, vanilla edge of oak, rather than a plank assault, and more restrained gentle fruit than the gloopy, tinned-fruit-syrup of the past. It's a bigger wine than the previous two, but - and this is a style rather than quality thing - I find a little too much flavour. I'll qualify that. A little too much of certain flavours. If you want to talk graphs, this just two or three major flavour spikes, rather than a broader range of flavours at less intense levels.

So while I'll keep an eye on the Nottage Hill and Wolf Blass, Bin 65 - tonight I'm yours.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Day Thirteen - Unlucky for some

Rumour has it that teetotaller Nicolas Sarkozy is at this very moment sitting there not drinking the Chateau Margaux 1961 that is being served at Windsor Castle in his honour. Stupid, stupid homme. Me? I'm on more Big blands. The thing that depresses me most about having to drink my way through a mound of best-sellers is that I will have wasted three weeks worth of opportunities to tuck into much better wines. As Len Evans put it, 'People who say you can’t drink good stuff all the time are fools. You must drink good stuff all the time. Every bottle of inferior wine you drink is like smashing a superior bottle against a wall: the pleasure is lost forever. You can’t get that bottle back.'

Kumala Colombard Chardonnay 2007, Western Cape
Simple lolly water that is getting worse as it warms up. When it was cooler, there was a vague greengage-y freshness to it. Now it's turning paunchy and looking rather flat - I reckon it would have been better without the Chardonnay.

Hardy's Stamp Series Semillon Chardonnay 2007, South Eastern Australia
There's a little more pzzazz here, with citrus and guava flavours and some smoky, burnt sugar and nut edges in the background. But this is still basic undemanding wine that the late, great Len would have banished from his presence.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Day Twelve - Boxing Clever

In case you hadn't noticed, two things have changed with Stowells of Chelsea. First of all, it's now called just Stowells - maybe Roman Abramovich was threatening a law suit (the thought of a head-to-head between the Russian oligarch and the world's largest wine company - Constellation now owns Stowells - probably has lawyers salivating). Secondly, as my wife put it, 'Isn't that the wine that comes in a box?' Well yes it still does, but now you're just as likely to find it in its various incarnations - 19 wines from 9 countries - in bottles of varying sizes. 'Enjoy our world of wine' proclaims the label. Let's see if I do.

Stowells Italian Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio
I don't mind this at all. Light peachy Chardonnay, a bit of crisp, pebble-like bite (you must have licked a river pebble once?) from the PG, and a fresh, zesty finish. Simple, yes, but not trying to be anything other than a midweek quaffer, a job it does better than some wines with more 'serious' reputations. And dry. All in all, a pleasant surprise.

Stowells Chilean Sauvignon Blanc
There's something here that leads me to believe that this contains Sauvignonasse, a poor imitation of Sauvignon Blanc (look here for a little background). Where decent Chilean Sauvignon is crisp and pithy, often with a minerally streak (again, think of licking pebbles or slate) on top of the zesty citrus flavours, this is slightly flabby, with a vague nutty edge, and not enough get-up-and-go. Tired, but not emotional.

So fan my brow and pass me a sugared almond, tonight I think I'll settle down with a glass of the Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio - but please, please, don't tell anyone...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Day Eleven - tell me why (I don't like Mondays)

What is it with Californian wine in the UK? I had a bit of a moan on Day Two about the dearth of decent affordable Cabernet from the Golden State, but to be honest I could extend my whinge to the entire gamut of wine. The annual Californian wine tasting took place about three weeks ago, and it was a depressing affair. Yes there were some fabulous wines, particularly from Vineyard Cellars, but anyone looking for good everyday drinking left feeling cheated. Why aren't there half a dozen sizeable wineries that can turn out interesting, tasty wine that can sell here for less than a tenner? Fetzer used to be able to manage it, but seems to have lost the plot. Cline is the only winery I can think of that has been doing the biz for any length of time.

(Another gripe about the event while I'm here - can it be organised next time by people who have actually tasted at a large tasting? Firstly the layout. Three aisles designated A, B and C is fine, but to get from stand A7 to A8 involved walking back past stands A5, A3, A1, A2, A4 and A6 - a complete pain in the Arroyo Seco. Secondly the food - an event like this is not the time for ornate food in tiny portions and food police to make sure you didn't go back for secs. Simple but substantial is what we need)

So it is with not especially high expectations that I set into...
Echo Falls Chardonnay 2006, California
The Merlot from Day Eight was OK, and blow me down, this isn't bad either. It starts out light, and crisp, just as the Hardy's VR did yesterday, but it keeps going in a similar vein, with none of the muddy sweet vanilla edge. Almost Mâcon-y in style, this is a pleasant surprise. Much of it will end up in the sauce for the smoked salmon and mushroom pasta, but a glass or two of this may very well pass my lips.

Its red partner is...
Kumala Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 2006. South Africa
Where does that baked/charred edge come from in South African reds? Some say from vine virus, some say from the soil, others say from barrels - no one has a fully convincing answer. You don't have to be an seasoned taster to pick it up - Jill spots some Cape reds a mile off. And here it is again, taking a fair degree of pleasure from what otherwise is a decent wine, plump and plummy, but with a dry finish. However, the last flavour in your mouth is bonfires - not what I want in a wine.

++++UPDATE March 30th++++
Just got hold of a bottle of the 2007 - much juicier, fresher, and with none of that Cape baked edge, nor the dry tannins. Is this the influence of the multi-talented, multi-chinned Bruce Jack, who has been roped into working on Kumala since his Flagstone winery was acquired by Constellation? Whatever, this is a BIG improvement on the 2006...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Day Ten - am I really only halfway there?

Have been out at the in-laws for tea this evening, and just to show I'm taking the task in hand seriously, I opted to take some of my Big Brands rather than something a little more esoteric (OK, tastier). He's an Aussie Shiraz fan, she likes Chardonnay, so the following seemed appropriate:-

Hardy's VR Chardonnay 2006, South Eastern Australia
Day One saw me on Blossom Hill Chardonnay. This is better, but not by a great deal. In its favour are the easy melon and peach flavours, but there's also this blowsy vanilla edge that turns a perfectly decent crisp wine into something blander. Still, I managed a glass of it without incurring much pain.

Hardy's VR Shiraz 2006, South Eastern Australia
I've watched with pleasure in recent years as producers of Aussie Shiraz have taken their foot off the gas when it comes to things such as oak, ripeness and alcohol levels. Ambitious Shirazes today are far better balanced and taste less manipulated than was the case in the late 1990s, and this is gradually having a knock-on effect lower down the price scale. Hopefully what I tasted here is still a wine in transit. It's not overripe, but the berry and blackcurrant flavours seem to be wrestling with a rather crude, even boot-polish-like edge and (again) some of that false vanilla character. As soon as I tasted it, I turned to Jill and said, 'I'll drive.'

Halfway through the experiment, and while I'm not having John McCririck-like reactions to my course of popular wine therapy, I'm most definitely looking forward to finishing. What's more, the line trotted out by the wine trade that we should drink 'less but better' seems to be breaking down - I've spent the last few days drinking only Big Brands, but my consumption is less than half its normal level.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Day Nine - and I'm feeling...sober

I mentioned yesterday about how my Big Brand Diet was diminishing the pleasure of evening meals. Another effect is that I'm drinking less. Wine writers have to watch their alcohol intake. Booze is always around, much of it extremely attractive, and most of us have learned the hard way - some faster than others - that it is not possible to finish every decent bottle that comes our way (for this, my family, friends, neighbours, couriers and anyone else who know me are often grateful).

But even when there aren't several barely-touched bottles sitting there in Alice-In-Wonderland fashion shouting 'Drink Me!' there is still a problem. Some (some) health experts may say that a bottle of wine between two people is too much, but I'm not one of them. However, the temptation begins when that first bottle is empty, and there's a sizeable part of the evening still ahead. Every once in a while, we break our unwritten 'no-second-bottle' rule - and usually regret it the morning after.

I've found no such temptation with the Big Brand Diet. Indeed, the only bottles that have been close-to-empty by the end of the evening have been Jacob's Creek Shiraz and Pinot Noir/Chardonnay fizz. Judging by the first sniffs of tonight's duo, that isn't about to change.

Hardy's VR Sauvignon Blanc 2006, South Eastern Australia
Not that this is bad wine. It's certainly an improvement on yesterday's Merlot in the same range, although I'm curious why my local Sainsbury's had this vintage of Sauvignon and a younger one of Merlot. But I like the pithy guava and citrus flavours, and the tangy finish. I imagine a 2007 would have had the zip that is missing here - it's gone into a sort of lime-jelly-limbo - but I'm still going to finish the glass, if not the bottle.

Kumala Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon 2007, Western Cape
There are some terrific Cape Sauvignons around. This isn't one of them. I can understand why someone has tried to knock off any gawky edges. Some of the wines in their youth are like sucking lemon-scented pebbles, and often need 18 months from vintage to show at their best. But in trying to make this more forward and friendly, any zippy, grassy appeal the wine once had has been submerged under a wave of creamy gloopiness. I'm going to try chilling it further to see if it improves, but I'm not holding our much hope.

PS Just had bad news. Jill has asked whether she can have a glass of something 'nice and red'. Grenache and Pinot Noir are her preferred tipples, and neither grape features in my stash of Big Brands. Which means that she will be spending the evening with something tasty (no, I didn't mean me...) while I will be sitting sipping soppy Savvy. Yawn.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Day Eight - Merlot makes the world go round

The thing I'm noticing most about my regime is how I'm not looking forward to evening meals with the same degree of anticipation. On a non-work day like today, it'd get to around 4pm, and I'd look at what were were going to be eating, then pop into the cellar to select something appropriate. Or if I'd been tasting, I might look at the open bottles and plan a meal to show off one of my faves. But with the BBD - Big Brand Diet - I feel like I'm missing out on a large degree of mealtime pleasure.

Tonight (spare ribs by popular request from the bairns) I've got two best-selling Merlots to look forward to. I've never understood the craze for Merlot. I realise that there are some châteaux in Bordeaux that come up with the goods, some fine examples from California and a number of places in Italy - Tuscany for power and fragrance, further north for more leafy, refreshing fodder - that can push the right buttons. Southern France too has a handful of crackers. But overall, the quality is desperately poor. It's a rare New World winery where the Merlot is the star wine - Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz usually outclass it by a considerable margin, especially in Australia. Chile? Since they started differentiating between true Merlot and Carmenère, the quality of wines labelled 'Merlot' has tumbled. Am I being unfair on the grape? Let's taste and find out.

Hardys VR Merlot 2007, South Eastern Australia
It's the sort of wine where my tasting notes say 'froot' - in other words it's a struggle to put your finger on the precise type of fruit, it's just rather vague and slightly confected, jammy and simple, instantly forgettable. And the back label has this word that bugs me - 'vanillin'. Don't ask me why it bugs me, but it's the sort of word I'd never use in conversation. This from Wikipedia. 'The largest single use of vanillin is as a flavoring, usually in sweet foods. The ice cream and chocolate industries together comprise 75% of the market for vanillin as a flavoring, with smaller amounts being used in confections and baked goods.' I don't want my wine to taste of ice-cream.

Echo Falls Merlot 2006, California
This is a rare occasion when I actually prefer a cheap Californian wine to it's Aussie equivalent. It's not a stunna, but at least this has a bit of grip and backbone, plus some of the leafy blueberry edges of Merlot. If it weren't for that rather cloying finish, I'd be drinking quite a bit more of this with the ribs.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Day Seven - sorry TC, no Pinotage on the horizon

OK, Peter May, I confess that I'm not maybe approaching this experiment with as much of the Big Brother-spirit as I could... Peter's comments about evenings off and Champagne tastings have struck a chord so for the next few days, I'm aiming to avoid wines (and beers) I want to drink, and stick to the Big Boys. Which means there'll be precious little room for Peter's first wine love, namely Pinotage (his other passion is for wine labels), unless some of it makes its way into one of the Kumala reds.

Have fond memories of a sensibly priced Pinotage from a trip to South Africa in the 1990s. Ended up one evening having a braai at the house of one TC Botha in Worcester. TC was an ex-member of the Springbok tug'o'war team, and was built like a brick privy. And his carnivorous credentials were unimpeachable. 'One time, my mother went away for the weekend and left me with a bucket of T-bones' was one quote. 'Men who like meat don't eat sausages' was another.

In the style of great barbecues everywhere, the men were in charge, the fire was lit too late, and by the time the meat actually hit the grate, virtually everyone was giddy on beer. We started eating at half past midnight, and then at 2am found ourselves in a strange wooden hut-cum-caravan at the bottom of the garden. 'Try this,' growled TC. It would have been impolite to refuse, especially as we had all just seen him devour enough bloody flesh to sink a gondola. 'This' was spectacularly good, lithe and leathery, brimming with meaty fruit, mature yet still full of life, like a smokier version of old-style Châteauneuf du Pape. It was a 1973 KWV Pinotage, and even though I visited some of the best addresses in the Cape over the next few days, it was a rare cellar that had anything that topped it.

Back to Biggies. Having had such success with Jacob's Creek on the last couple of seesions, I thought why not have more of the same. So...

Jacob's Creek Shiraz Rosé 2007, South Eastern Australia
Richer and drier than the American pinks, this is juicy supple wine, like blackberry and apple pie in a glass. TC's aged Pinotage would be a prime candidate for a barbecue partner, but this fruity little fellow would also go down surprisingly well...

Jacob's Creek Chardonnay/Pinot Noir Brut Cuvée NV, South Eastern Australia would this. No, it's not a food fizz, but it's the sort of fodder that you'd very happily sip at a BBQ while waiting for the men (why is it always men?) to get the food ready. The bold could even attempt sabrage. It's not the most complex of wines, but it's a fresh, nutty, not-too-big wine that offers flavours of pineapples, apples, even chocolate (think chocolate limes). And when my wife returns from the Maundy Thursday service, I'll be having at least one more glass of this.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Day Six - Stranded at the drive-in...

...branded a fool etc. etc. It's not Monday at school, it's Wednesday in Dobcross (home of champion whistler David Morris) and so it's back to Brands - hence the weak 'branded a fool' bit (it's from Grease, for numpties). Tonight it's the second pair from Jacob's Creek. Have to confess to positive vibes for JC. A long time ago, in my transition from electronics engineer to mad, bad, brand-tasting wine writer, I stayed for a week at a place called the Bunkhaus on the main road between Tanunda and Nuriootpa in the Barossa Valley, and cycled to several wineries. There IS an actual Jacob's Creek there, even if most of the grapes that go into the bottles don't come from the surrounding district. But I remember writing in the Bunkhaus's visitor's book that JC was one of those rare brands that did the biz with some panache. Monday's whites seemed to bear this out - what about tonight's reds...?

Jacob's Creek Shiraz 2006, South Eastern Australia
This is fresh, spicy stuff, generous in its berry and plum flavours, but with a juicy peppery edge to liven up the finish. Relaxed and tasty, I really like this. Not too big, not too ripe, not too oaky, an honest appealing glass of wine, and although there are no rough edges that need resolving, I'd be very interested to see how this looks with another couple of years in bottle. Speaking of which...

Jacob's Creek Shiraz/Cabernet 2005, South Eastern Australia
...when I lived in London, any major sporting occasion saw several members of the wine fraternity descend on Oz Clarke's house for 'a good time'. For the World Cup, everyone had to bring wine from a World Cup vintage, so you'd have everything from hot-of-the-press Kiwi Sauvignon from a visiting winemaker to weirdies such as 1962 Romanian Cotnari to more conventional fare such as 1982 claret. And on one of these occasions, Oz - a wine hoarder of the highest order - raided his massively disorganised wine cellar to produce a vertical tasting of about a dozen vintages of this wine dating back to the mid-1908s. Surprisingly good they were too, with most years holding up well, and a handful all the better for the bottle age. So how's the 2005? There's some of that fresh peppery edge of the regular Shiraz, but the fruit is softer, plummier - is this the Cabernet, or the older vintage? For me it's not as successful a wine, but it's still not bad, with juicy berry to the fore, followed by a leathery, liquoricey edge.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Day Five.0001

I have a day off in the middle of Brand-fest as I'm in London for a couple of tastings. There's the France Under One Roof bash tomorrow (the Manchester tasting was yesterday) but today it's been the annual Champagne tasting at the Banqueting Hall in London.

Slumming it? Hmmm... Sadly this is the only tasting of the year where I'm made to feel like a criminal. Want lunch? Stand up in line, and even if you have the right coloured ticket, you'll be made to feel guilty. Is it the people at the venue? Is it the people who organise the tasting? I've no idea who is responsible, but the whole approach to the Champagne bash leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth, even before you've started.

If there was any French region that could afford to put on a decent tasting, then it would be Champagne - the marketing is fabulous even when the wines aren't, which is why no one bats an eyelid at spending £25 on Champagne when they'd baulk at spending half that amount on Cava of similar quality.

Yet regardless of the quality of the wines - and there were some fabulous fizzes - I left the event with a bad taste in my mouth. Why should we have to pay to check in a bag in the cloakroom? Are they trying to discourage those who come from outside the M25? And why should we tasters be asked to move out of the way of the tasting bottles so that a film crew can film the person in charge of the PR for Champagne doing a frothy bit to camera? Who is the tasting for - the PR company or those who come to try the wines?

Anyway, I'm away from home tonight so no Top 10 brands, A glass of Krug would be wonderful, but the taste left in my mouth by last night's duo from Jacob's Creek is actually better than that left today by the Champenoise.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Day Five - Hey JC, JC you're alright by me

Apologies for the Andrew Lloyd Webber reference in the title of this post, but this is Holy Week after all (check out Mars Hill for more on The Main Man, but be warned that it's subversive). Actually stuff the apology - I have to admit to a sneaky admiration for the podgy titled one. When I sit down at a keyboard, I often flex my fingers with the intro bars to Jellicle Cats. And when I can't sleep, I sing my way through Joseph & His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - if I get to 'Close Every Door To Me', I know it's going to be a long night.

Might do another Phillip Schofield/J&HATD story soon, but back to the title of this post. JC in this instance stands for Jacob's Creek, number 4 in the UK wine brands chart and supposedly Australia's Top Drop. The next couple of postings will see whether it lives up to its billing. Tonight is the night when Alex Woods (aged 7) goes to his swimming lesson, and we slum it with chippie tea. Two whites would seem appropriate...

Jacob's Creek Semillon Chardonnay 2007, South Eastern Australia
After a diet of blobby Californian whites, this crisp youngster comes as blessed relief. It's not amazingly complex, but with clean citrus and peach flavours balanced by a core of zippy acidity, it's a wine of which that I'd happily pour myself a second glass, or at least on a day when I'd not already tried 120 wines - tonight it's only the teapot that gets a second pour.

Jacob's Creek Chardonnay 2007, South Eastern Australia
Those 120 wines were at the France Under One Roof tasting in Manchester (the London bash is on Wednesday). I've tasted a number of Maconnais whites today that bore a striking resemblance to this creamy, nutty young Chardonnay. While it's not a stunna, both this and the Sem/Chard have the personality that the Californians lacked.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Day Four - a great way to finish the weekend...

...would have been to share the delicious Castello della Paneretta Chianti Classico Torre a Destra 2002 that Jill was smiling along with during dinner. She said it was perfect with my shepherd's pie, in which a lot of the meat is replaced with chopped-up mushrooms - don't tell the kids, as they think they don't like them (Does this still make it a shepherd's pie? Both lamb and beef mince appeared in the ingredients, so already we're straying into cottage pie territory. What is the correct terminology for a mashed potato-topped beef mince, lamb mince, mushroom, onion, carrot and garlic-y dish? Reminds me of something Justin Howard-Sneyd of Waitrose told me several years ago about how he could never understand why the non-meat version of Chilli Con Carne at his college canteen was called Veggie Con Carne). Anyway, Jill was on top-notch Chianti, while my tipples were...

Blossom Hill Crisp & Fruity White NV
The last of the Blossom Hill quartet, and not a great way to bow out. With its muddy citrus and elderflower flavours, it reminded me of a slightly podgier Liebfraumilch, complete with the sulphur lurking in the background. 'Perfect for drinking anytime,' according to the back label - a missing coda should have said 'except on days with a "d" in.'

Gallo White Grenache 2006
Yesterday's White Zin was OK, what about this? It's paler and not as fleshy, with plums rather than brambles/berries being the dominant flavour. Yet once again, while it's not my style, it's still not bad for what I call Kiss-Me Kwik wine. And like the Zin, just 9.5% alcohol.

The four days I've spent with California's most visible representatives in the UK has been pretty much as I'd have predicted. Blossom Hill has never frapped my boutons; Gallo on occasion has. What I hadn't expected was that it would be the two Gallo pinkies (priced before discount at around a fiver) rather than the more expensive Sycamore Canyon duo (~£8) that would be my faves.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Day Three - handbags at dusk

White Zinfandel... For a wine enthusiast to confess to drinking it is like a music critic saying they like James Blunt, or for a film fan to put Porky's II at the top of their all-time must-watch list. But it does have its advocates.

Long ago, before he gave up drinking, Tim Hanni used to spin a great yarn about the 100-point wine scale. His line was that all marks ran from 50 to 100 - but what were the first 50 points for? He reckoned for the occasion on which you drank the wines. So, for example, the wine is the legendary 1947 Cheval Blanc, surely a wine that deserves it's full 50/50. But you're drinking it with your bank manager, who has just called in your overdraft - a situation meriting just 2/50. Total score, 52/100. Tim at the time worked for Beringer, from whom he'd get White Zin at an extremely favourable price. And on a summer day, well-chilled (both the drink and the drinker), it merited maybe 20/50. But said Tim. 'I'm drinking it with four Finnair stewardesses - 50/50!' Total points 70/100 - better than the Cheval Blanc, in other words.

Sadly, I don't have a quartet of trolley dollies this evening to help me polish off two best-selling White Zins (indeed, take this pair away, and both rose and American wine sales would plummet). So with just a keyboard and a mouse for company, let's see how they fare...

Gallo White Zinfandel 2006
This is simple stuff, slightly sweet and confected, but there's a gentle bramble flavour (bit like the purple ones in Opal Fruits/Starburst), plus a finish that, while not dry, manages to be sappy and refreshing rather than flaccid.

Blossom Hill White Zinfandel 2006
Paler than the Gallo, but more interesting? Not really. This is more in the fruit jelly mould of wines, with a touch of elderflower, but ultimately it's rather too sweet and vague where the Gallo has some boldness.

However for wines I'm not supposed to like, these are certainly not undrinkable. Match of the Day's on in a couple of hours and you know what, I'm even tempted to chill the Gallo down and have another glass later - in the meantime, I'll just sing along to 'You're Beautiful'...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Day Two - something for the weekend?

It's Friday evening, and I'd usually sign off work early, head for the kitchen and begin cooking, with lubrication being provided by something appropriately soothing yet stimulating. However, today my kitchen companions are the red counterparts of yesterday's Chardonnays....

Blossom Hill Soft & Fruity Red (non-vintage)
'Soft & Fruity' is pretty accurate. Smooth would be another word. But as I've said before, smooth isn't what I want in a wine. This reminds me of Ribena infused with Jammie Dodgers. I said of the BH White yesterday 'This is inoffensive, slightly off-dry wine that tastes like it comes from a factory rather than a vineyard.' I'd say much the same of the red too.

Gallo Sycamore Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
We don't see enough Californian Cabernet in the UK, largely because the home market guzzles it up with patriotic gusto. The bits we do get tend to be either good but not very affordable, or affordable but not very good. Gallo has some decent Cabs higher up its range, but alas this doesn't give much encouragement to trade up to them. You know that overt vanilla character you get in Vimto, Camp coffee and mint imperials? There's something of the same flavour here. It's rather mushy, formless wine, fruity but not fine, like trying to drink a vanilla-infused duvet.

The good news - for me - is that I'm going out later. And since the Top-10-brand-drinking rule only applies at home...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Day One in the Big Bottle House...

So here I go, how long can I survive on just Big Brand Wine? I'm aiming to pour myself a glass of two different wines each night I'm at home. And yes, it is just me - Jill will be drinking whatever she likes. Tonight she's on Mud House 2007 Sauvignon Blanc which is a cracker - watch out for it in the Wine & Spirit First Taste column sometime soon. Meanwhile, I'm on 2 Californian Chardonnays....

Blossom Hill Chardonnay 2006
They say: 'Melons and apples with a hint of smooth vanilla...this full flavoured white is perfect anytime, or with rich chicken, salmon, or vegetable dishes.' (I love that - 'perfect anytime OR...' - is there some occasion that 'anytime' doesn't cover?)
Anyway, Simon says: actually, it's a struggle to say anything about it. Long ago, I stopped writing notes on wines that didn't want to tell me anything - what's the point? This is inoffensive, slightly off-dry wine that tastes like it comes from a factory rather than a vineyard. I'm not looking for the nearest plantpot, but neither am I looking to have another sip.

Gallo Sycamore Canyon Chardonnay 2006
A little more crispness, a little more fruit (yes, some apples here), a little more character, but again, it's difficult to summon up much enthusiasm. I'll be having another sip of this, but there's not much in my glass, and if/when it becomes empty, I won't be having a refill. But the bottles won't go to waste - my mother-in-law** hoovers up wines like this.

To finish on a more positive note, what I will say in both wines' favour is that neither is oversweet, nor over oaky - I wouldn't have said the same five years ago.

**anagram of Woman Hitler

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Winal Countdown

OK, the Top 10 UK wine brands - here's how they currently stand:-

Rank Brand Owner
1 Hardys Constellation
2 Gallo E & J Gallo
3 Blossom Hill Percy Fox
4 Jacob’s Creek Pernod Ricard
5 Stowells Constellation
6 Wolf Blass Fosters EMEA
7 Lindemans Fosters EMEA
8 Banrock Station Constellation
9 Echo Falls Constellation
10 Kumala Constellation

I look at a list like that with mixed feelings. First the positive side. Somewhere on t'Internet, there probably exists a similar list from the 70s or 80s full of names like Le Piat d'Or, Black Tower, Blue Nun, Hirondelle and so on. Anyone mourn their demise? Thought not. However, the raft of almost exclusively New World offerings that has replaced them (the Stowells range includes some European wines) isn't a cause for prolonged celebration. Sure, the New World has brought a reliability to cheap wines that Europe still struggles to emulate, but with that reliability comes a frequently bland uniformity that is the opposite of everything I like about wine (check out this post for the attributes I'd love to see in a cheap wine).

And so it's with a sense of 'grin and bear it' that I'm embarking on this task. I don't expect undrinkability to be a problem, but I'm anticipating a raft of Sweetcorn wines. You know when you eat sweetcorn, how, a few hours later when you're in the bathroom, you look in the loo and, well, I think you know what I mean. So a sweetcorn wine is one that you might just as well pour down the bog for all the good it has done to your body...

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The things we do for love....OK, money

An e-mail from David Williams, editor of Wine & Spirit, that thwopped into my In-Box earlier this year began thus. "We're dong [sic] a 'big issue' in May, a kind of sister issue to our small producers number, focusing on the world's biggest producers."

Since getting married a couple of years ago, David has gained both a beard and a bit of a paunch, but he's still the spitting image of my old schoolmate Morf, who acquired his nickname when Tony Hart's creation of the same name appeared on our screens - a coincidence really as the moniker had nothing to do with Plasticine and everything to do with...well we won't go there.

(Two things about Plasticine. First, I'm reminded of it every time I walk past a field of cows as the smell is close to identical - is there something the manufacturers weren't telling schoolchildren? Second, the Wikipedia entry begins with the wonderful warning 'Not to be confused with the Pleistocene epoch which is part of the geologic timescale.')

Anyway, back to the e-mail "We thought it would be fun as part of this to do a kind of 'supersize me' type feature where a wine writer who is normally spoilt for choice in what they drink, has to drink only wines from the top 10 UK off-trade brands for a limited period. (ideally a week or more). As Kevin Keegan would put it, I'd love it, just love it, if you fancied doing it..."

And so for the next few days, and maybe weeks, my drinking at home (as opposed to tasting) will coincide with that of most of the rest of the country. I looked to sign off this past weekend in suitable fashion with a bottle of 1988 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle. Sadly it was corked - an omen of the pleasures to follow...?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Striking Gold(water)

Found a bottle of Goldwater Cabernet/Merlot 1996 (from Waiheke Island off the coast of Auckland) murmuring on the rack earlier in the week and stood it up for tonight's rib-eye. It comes from a period where most Kiwi winemakers looking at Bordo styles were OTT with both oak and extraction, but I never found that with Goldwater (that may change under the new owners). This is the sort of wine that shows how well NZ can ape Bordeaux. It's fading now, three hours on from opening, and the acidity is poking out, but it's been in that smoky refreshing Cabernet zone, with the restrained cedary finesse, smoky black fruit and lazy tannic structure that could pass for claret - I'd have had is as something like a 1988 Haut-Medoc.

Also makes me think of how 50 years from now, perhaps the Kiwis will be better known for reds than whites. After all, this is a country initially dismissed as fit only for Muller-Thurgau. Then along came Sauvignon, then Pinot Noir. Syrah is currently hot in the Land of the Long White Cloud - Bilancia is a star - with the best wines having the herbal intensity of the Rhone with more bouncy fruit. Bordo blends have been around throughout these various fads, and have been improving steadily. Don't be surprised when their day comes...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Baffled By Bullshit

On the always-lively wine pages forum, a member recently asked a question that began 'I've been researching wine-tasting terms...' He then asked for opinions on this piece he'd done called 'How to Talk About Wine'.

Let's just take our wine hats off for a moment, stand back, and take a long, hard critical look at ourselves. Now let's rehash these phrases for other genres - 'I've been researching gardening terms' or 'How to Talk About Cinema.' Anyone ever seen articles on such topics? Yet many wine folk insist on using terms to which that the majority of normal people simply cannot relate. Palate. Complexity. Residual Sugar. Finish. Length. Attack. Balance. Terroir. Structure. Fruit-Driven. Etc

Does anyone talk about the complexity of a white truffle? The residual sugar in a ripe mango? The finish on a piece of Wagyu beef? No. If those of us whose job it is to get people enthusiastic about wine can't do it in standard lingo, then we deserve to be dismissed as wine snobs or wine buffs. This doesn't mean dumbing wine down, just introducing it to people in a manner that won't alienate them from the start.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Fill yer boots, correction, boobs...

The totally inspired USB wine tap may have been a work of fiction, but there's nothing make-believe about The Wine Rack. While purists may complain that it doesn't deliver wine at the correct serving temperature, it sounds perfect for Châteauneuf-du-Pap, Brabera d'Asti and of course Bristol Cream.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Bill Baker - RIP

A huge vacuum has been left by the death last weekend of wine merchant Bill Baker. A man who seemed to take Monsieur Creosote from The Meaning of Life as a role model, he packed more life, not to mention food and wine, into his 53 years than anyone else I've ever come across, and despite his larger-than-life, old-school appearance, had a palate that loved the classic yet was as keen and wide ranging as any. I feel privileged to have been one on second-names terms name terms with him - I was always Woods, never Simon - and will sorely miss his garumphing laugh, bizarrely long thumb nail and generously-given advice.

For those who never came across him, Jancis Robsinson's web site currently has the episode of Vintners Tales featuring the man.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Bordeaux, but not as we know it

Holy yum with sprinkles on the top. Apologies for my absence in recent days, but I've been regalvanised by a glass of Chateau Guiraud** 2005. No, not the sumptuous sweet wine from said establishment but the G de Guiraud Bordeaux Sec, available for £8 from Majestic, and more than worth every penny. Heady, rich, with more lemons in there than an X-Factor audition, this is wine to serve to those reared on New World wines who complain that they find European whites either lean and tart, or excessively bland and flabby. This is a wine that is stretching the waistband of its kecks, but by dint of its sherbet lemon intensity manages to get away with it. Lobsters are thin on the ground in Saddleworth, but this is the sort of kit I'd want to roll out with said beasties. In their absence, this is perfect fish and chip wine - hold the vinegar.

** was going to add in a link to their web site, but for English speakers, it's one of those that falls down as soon as you follow a few links - Google it if you want more info, but don't be surprised if it's not very useful.