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)