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...?