Terroir in California: A New Hope

There were more than 2,500 wineries operating in the United States before Prohibition was instated in 1920. By its repeal in 1933 there were less than 100. With World War I (1914 – 1918) occurring before this catastrophic policy, and World War II (1939 – 1945) shortly after, there wasn’t much left of the Californian wine industry by the middle of the century.

After the table grapes and port-style wines of the 1940s and ‘50s, it really was only in the mid-‘60s that growers starting turning their hands once more in any number to the production of fine wines. It was the birth of a new era.

One of the most famous wineries in California is Stags Leap Wine Cellars. They produced their first vintage in 1972. Their 1973 vintage won the legendary Judgement of Paris tasting three years later, in 1976. At this blind tasting of the best of the best, towering Bordeaux was pitted against plucky California. Until then, it was widely accepted that the French were unbeatable. Very publicly, they went home red-faced, and Californian wine was suddenly taken much more seriously. It was at this early stage that California, the child star, was abruptly pushed into the spotlight – and the money started rolling in. Like so many child stars, its upbringing has been coloured by money, fame and market forces.

Not long after, in 1978, an attorney at the Farm Credit Banks of Baltimore called Robert M. Parker Jr started publishing a wine buying guide called The Wine Advocate for other wine lovers such as himself. Wine was still a minority interest in the US at this time, but this was set to change. His trademark 100-point scale was grasped by emerging drinkers as an easy way to see at a glance which wines were recommended. Six years later, he resigned from his job to concentrate on writing full-time, so popular had it become. As the magazine’s readership grew, if a wine scored highly it would be snapped up with increasing fervour.

Thanks to Californian wine’s new-found celebrity, the prices of the best were rocketing, especially the best bottles from Napa. Accordingly, so was the price of grape-growing land in this small valley, as more and more people wanted to get in on the act. Wineries needed to charge high prices to see a return on their investment. And a sure-fire way to justify a high price was to secure a high score from Mr Parker.

Like all of us, Parker has his own personal taste. Typically a fan of riper, richer styles, this is the type of wine that many wineries started to emulate in the search of high Parker Points®. Napa was a developing fine wine region, and it was yet to find its feet like many of its older European counterparts. Unlike the classic established regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy who had to follow stringent appellation contrôlée (AC) laws to deliver a specific style, California was free to do as it pleased.

The French have a word to describe the typical, commonly accepted style of a wine from a specific region: typicité. When referring to wine, this quality is best translated as ‘typicality’ – in other words, it tastes as you would expect it to taste, it is a typical or classic example of the type of wine that it purports to be. It is why you buy wine from one area rather than another – because you expect it to taste a certain way. This quality traditionally came from the specific site, the terroir, and its intrinsic character that had become apparent through years or decades or production. Californian wineries however created their own typicité. Through decades of creating a certain style, what is now expected of Napa Cabernets is ripe, rich, oaky flavours, perhaps with a little sweetness to the intense fruit.

But this is not terroir; these are all characteristics that can be achieved by viticultural techniques (picking late) and practices in the winery (use of new oak barrels). When making wine, the voice of the land can be muffled. Rather than letting it speak naturally, many Napa winemakers chased Parker Points, and in doing so forged the style for which Napa is now famous. And now they are stuck with it; it is what is looked for, what is expected by people buying the wines of this region. It is self-imposed typicité.

In 2011 Robert Parker, the ‘Emperor of Wine’, passed on Wine Advocate responsibility for reviewing Californian wine to his colleague Antonio Galloni: a different critic, with his own values. Wine buyers and collectors both in the US and globally are more mature and self-confident than they were in the 1970s; it is unlikely Galloni will wield the same power as Parker over his subject. All of the winemakers I spoke to whilst in Napa had their own unique perspective, but all agreed that Parker’s palate has had a major effect on the type of wines being produced there over the past few decades. His unintentional influence will surely now begin to wane. This is an opportunity for Napa to express itself afresh.

Individuals come and go, reputations rise and fall, but the land remains. This year could mark a new chapter in the history of Californian wine. The modern industry is still relatively young, and the land has such vast potential. In Napa alone there are many American Viticultural Areas (like French appellations contrôlées), all with unique personalities. And further distinct terroirs within each one. Many of them are still only faintly understood.  Hopefully they will be given more scope to find their own voice and express themselves.

It is impossible to discuss any region in this way without generalising. Many Napa wineries follow a non-interventionist approach with limited new oak, all the better for letting the natural terroir shine. More and more seem to be going down this route. Some wineries have always been steadfast in making wines that are true to the land and have withstood the vagaries of fame and fashion. One of these wineries is Corison. I’ll post a piece on them tomorrow.

Wine Rack: Back to the Future

Unwins; deceased. Threshers; defunct. Victoria Wine; departed. The era of the off-licence chain is over. Like Crocs, they died out in the Noughties. And since the Threshers insulting ‘3 for 2’ non-deal of their final years, few of us have looked back. Caught between the low prices of the supermarkets and the good ranges of the independent merchants, they had little to offer. So how come Wine Rack are back with 21 stores, with their eye on doubling that?

Wine Rack was one of the numerous off-licence brands owned by the First Quench empire. When they went bust in 2009, an independent drinks wholesaler called Venus snapped up the brand and the top performing 14 Wine Rack stores.

Since then, over the past two years, they have been quietly opening more stores and improving their range. They are all located in the south of England, from Bristol to Kent. They plan to have three more open by Christmas. With “75% of stores doing well” they must be doing something right.

So what has changed? On the surface… not much. Though their range is better than I remember, many of the mass market branded wines remain. Though looking fine in the Loire, much of their French selection still needs attention. Portugal and Germany are practically ignored, and their range from the USA is a bit sorry. Most other countries are represented by some reliable producers (Cape Mentelle, St Hallett and Wynns in Australia; Errazuriz, Montes and Casa Silva in Chile; Invivo, Villa Maria and Mudhouse in New Zealand; Vergelegen and Meerlust in South Africa; CVNE, Riscal and Murrieta in Spain).

Two areas in which they excel are spirits and beer. Their spirits range, though not terribly exciting, is at least broad enough to cover everything you could ever need. It is huge, and contains around 250 different products. Their beer and cider range is also extensive, with around 130 lines. Both of these are tucked away at the back of their price list, but they are real strengths. I wonder why they don’t make more of them.

They seem to be trying to inhabit that precarious ground between the supermarkets and the independent merchants that has proved so treacherous in the past. Their range of drinks is wider and better than the average supermarket, though not quite so cheap. There is a lot of choice at the cheaper end compared to your typical independent merchant, and on some items their prices are quite reasonable. If I was on my way to a friend’s house for dinner, I would go to a Wine Rack before a convenience-sized supermarket any day.

It’s not clear what lessons have been learnt, and therefore what changes have been made, since its last incarnation. Perhaps the lesson is that there is nothing inherently unworkable about off-licence chains after all, as long as they select their sites carefully and don’t grow too large. But how large is too large? I hope for their sake there’s more than one way to find out.



Some highlights:




Crémant de Bourgogne Brut, Simonnet-Febvre, 2007
100% Chardonnay grape from Burgundy, France
£15.99 available at Wine Rack

Attractive nose with apple, pear and oyster shell. Full, soft fizz and cleansing acidity. Medium length, nicely balanced. 89 points, good value.




Côtes-du-Rhône, Chantespan, 2009
A blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault grapes from Rhône Valley, France
£6.99, down to £6.00 if you buy 2 bottles from 14th November 2011 to 8th January 2012, available at Wine Rack

Simple red fruit aromas, strawberry and raspberry, with some hints of spice. Nicely balanced, medium to full-bodied, with succulent, fresh fruit flavours and a touch of vanilla. Savoury earthy finish. 88 points, good value.

Meerlust ‘Red’ 2009
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes from Stellenbosch, South Africa
£10.99 available at Wine Rack

Intense blackcurrant bush, burnt spices and roasted meat aromas. Full-bodied and smoky, this is far from subtle, with big tannins and loads of acidity. A powerful, unmistakably South African red. 88 points, good value.

Chianti Classico Riserva, Poggio al Mandorli, 2007
A blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes from Tuscany, Italy
£10.99 available at Wine Rack

Bright cherry, licorice and dried herbs. Quite old-fashioned, with powerful acidity and assertive tannins. Attractive aromatics, but I wouldn’t drink this without food. 88 points, good value. (NB I would avoid their Sangiovese IGT 2007, whose tannins are aggressively high.)

Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Vergelegen, 2005
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes from Stellenbosch, South Africa
£15.99 available at Wine Rack

The cassis, cedar and cigar box nose point at first to a Bordeaux (Pauillac), but something about the intensity of fruit flavours on the palate suggest a warmer climate. Medium-bodied, with velour tannins and good length. Very elegant, very good. Highly recommended. 92 points, good value.




Riesling, St Hallett, 2009
100% Riesling grape from Eden Valley, Australia
£9.99 available at Wine Rack

Lime skin, apricot, and a bit of that ‘rubber bands’ smell you get in a lot of Aussie Riesling. Dry, with medium body and firm acidity. Fruity finish. 89 points, fair value.

Sauvignon Blanc, Invivo, 2010
100% Sauvignon Blanc grape from Marlborough, New Zealand
£10.99 available at Wine Rack

Classic Marlborough Sauvignon, with gooseberry, asparagus and freshly cut grass. Fruity, not too herbal or vegetal. Balanced and dry with good acidity. 90 points, good value.

Montagny 1er Cru ‘La Grande Roche’, Louis Latour, 2009
100% Chardonnay grape from Burgundy, France
£14.99 available at Wine Rack

Pretty, floral nose (hawthorn blossom). Very dry and lean, but with a touch of honey and some richness of texture on the palate. Medium length, with good acidity and a mineral finish. This is a winning example of what can sometimes be an austere and unloveable appellation. 89 points, fair value.

Sancerre ‘Monts Damnés’, Fournier, 2010
100% Sauvignon Blanc grape from Loire, France
£19.99 available at Wine Rack

Pronounced grassy and attractively herbal nose. Lean, medium-bodied, with a spicy acidity. Very dry and still quite tightly wound but this is very good and will continue to improve in the short-term. 91 points, fair value.


Anything to avoid?


There were a good number of wines out of the 75 I tasted that, if I had bought blind, would have been a bit disappointing. Their ‘house’ Champagne, Autreau, was not great (non vintage 86 points, rosé non vintage 85 points) and neither great value. And:


Chardonnay, Septimo Dia, 2008
100% Chardonnay grape from Mendoza, Argentina
£10.99 available at Wine Rack

Burnt pie crust on the nose. Pineapple and coconut, with lots of dark caramel on the finish. Not that bad really, but very heavy on the oak. 85 points, not great value.

Pinotage ‘The Owl Post’, Neethlingshof 2010
100% Pinotage grape from Stellebosch, South Africa
£14.99 available at Wine Rack

To rename this ‘The Fowlmost’ might be a little harsh, but there was definitely a hint of that ‘fag ash and blood’ thing that Pinotage can exhibit when it’s in a sulk. Not entirely unenjoyable, but compared to the Vergelegen at almost the same price, I know where my money would go. 86 points, not great value.

Château d’Anglès ‘Rouge Classique’ 2008
A blend of 40% Syrah, 40% Grenache and 20% Mourvèdre grapes from La Clape, France
£11.99 available at Wine Rack, reduced to £9.99 from 14th November 2011 to 8th January 2012

Full-bodied. Damson, plum and cooked strawberry fruit. A bit sweaty and dirty. Noticeable, unbalanced level of alcohol. 85 points, not great value. (NB the alcohol level on their Blanc Classique 09 also seemed unbalanced.)

Lea & Sandeman: Classic but up-to-date

Charles Lea and Patrick Sandeman set up their first shop 23 years ago, and now they have four, all dotted around the posher parts of London (Chelsea, Notting Hill, Barnes and Chiswick). If you have one around the corner from where you live, you can consider yourself lucky. Not just because you are probably quite rich, but also because these are excellent shops that stock some thrilling bottles of wine.

They are essentially a small chain of classic independent wine shops. On the surface there is little to mark them out as particularly innovative, but they have nailed the most important thing – their range. It is interesting, authentic, drinkable and much of it relatively affordable. By Patrick’s own admission, it reflects what he and Charles like to drink. And what they like to drink is the wine of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont and Tuscany. Over half of their reds, and just under half of their whites, are made up of these four areas. All the other main winemaking regions are in evidence to some extent as well, and they aren’t afraid to experiment with little-known sub-regions and obscure grape varieties. If the New World is your thing, however, there is less to choose from.

Another reason for the Old World focus is that 90% of the wines they sell (not including Bordeaux or big name Champagne) are sourced directly by them, and not bought from UK agents or shippers. This makes for a very interesting selection, much of which you won’t find available elsewhere. It also means that many of the producers might be unfamiliar, but in my experience the staff tend to be more than willing to help describe the wines and offer guidance.

With high street rents so high there are no immediate plans to open any more stores. This is a pity, as they are great examples of classic but up-to-date wine shops.



Some highlights:




Benedick Grand Reserve Brut Non Vintage
A blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes from Champagne, France
£19.95 available at Lea & Sandeman

Spicy green apple and some red apple on the nose. Soft, pleasant sparkle. Balanced and fresh with crisp acidity and a bit of toastiness on the medium to long finish. 88 points, very good value.




Dombeya ‘Boulder Road’ Shiraz 2007
100% Shiraz grape from Stellenbosch, South Africa
£12.50 available at Lea & Sandeman

Meaty, smoky, peppery, gamey. Quite developed, and not one to hold on to for much longer, but at the moment this is very tasty. Lots of sweet fruit, good acidity and soft ripe tannins. The Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from Dombeya are also worth a go. 89 points, fair value.

Acústic Vinyes Velles Nobles, Bodegas Acústic 2009
A blend of Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignan) grapes from Montsant, Spain
£14.75 available at Lea & Sandeman

Juicy strawberry and blackberry fruit overlaid with smoke, meat and tar. Bright and juicy cranberry, strawberry and blackberry on the palate with firm tannins and acidity. Long finish. Their white was brilliant, too. 90 points, good value.

Barolo, Andrea Oberto, 2007
100% Nebbiolo grape from Barolo, Northern Italy
£28.95 available at Lea & Sandeman

Very aromatic nose with violets and dried orange peel. Tannic, with high acidity. Powerful and young still, but like so many of the 2007 Barolos this is lush and approachable now thanks to lots of sweet ripe fruit. 90 points, good value.

Brunello di Montalcino, Collemattoni, 2006
100% Sangiovese grape from Tuscany, Italy
£31.50 available at Lea & Sandeman

Wonderful inviting aromas of cherries, dried herbs and tar. Very dry, with mouthcoating tannins and intense, sweet fruit. Lovely balance, pure and delicious. 92 points, fair value.




Touraine Les Sauterelles, Domaine de Pierre 2009
100% Sauvignon Blanc grape from Loire Valley, France
£9.95 available at Lea & Sandeman

Very fruity for a Touraine Sauvignon, with lots of gooseberry, kiwi and passion fruit. Dry, with long pure flavours. 89 points, good value.

Fié Gris, Domaine de l’Aujardière 2010
100% Fié Gris grape from Loire Valley, France
£15.50 available at Lea & Sandeman

This unusual grape variety (aka Sauvignon Gris) is rarely seen, but going by this example you wonder why. Gooseberry fruit with hints of pine, oyster shell and smoke. Medium bodied and ever so slightly musky on the palate. Well balanced with a fresh finish. This has lots of interest and complexity, worth a try. 91 points, fair value.

Galea, I Clivi, Colli Orientali del Friuli 2008
100% Friulano grape from Friuli, Northern Italy
£17.95 available at Lea & Sandeman

Fascinating wine by I Clivi from a great but lesser-known white wine making region. Pale gold in colour, with hay, honey, baked apple and spice on the nose. Also a slight oxidative hint that lends it complexity. Full-bodied and quite viscous in the mouth but without sacrificing freshness. Dry, with more apple and melon flavours on the palate. Creamy, grippy texture that seems to take precedence over the actual flavours. No oak though. Rich, intense and very long. Not one for everyone, but this is unusual and rather wonderful. 93 points, good value.

St Aubin 1er Cru ‘Les Frionnes’, Domaine Hubert Lamy 2008
100% Chardonnay grape from Burgundy, France
£27.50 available at Lea & Sandeman

Less well-known than Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet, St. Aubin can often be overlooked as an appellation for white Burgundy, but can be the source of some great wines. Close to a Puligny in style, this has lots of lime, honeycomb and flowers on the nose along with a whiff of smoke. Medium bodied and toasty, with lots of citrussy acidity and a lick of gingerbread. A classic St. Aubin from one its best estates. 91 points, fair value.


Anything to avoid?


Having tried around 100 of their wines, very few didn’t make the grade, but if I was going to avoid anything it would probably be:

Rey don Garcia, Crianza, Bodegas Ruconia 2008
A blend of Tempranillo, Graciano and Mazuelo (Carignan) from Rioja, Spain
£10.95 available at Lea & Sandeman

Smoky red and black fruits. High, slightly unbalanced acidity, and a bit lacking in body and concentration. 84 points, not great value.

Tesco Wine Fair: the good, the bad and the ugly

I’m not going to lie to you. The masochist in me just couldn’t wait to go to the Tesco Wine Fair. I’ve been before. I always go; usually alone. It’s my naughty little secret.

This is the ticketed event they put on every year for their customers. It costs between £6 and £10 to get in, and they have either one or two sessions during the course of a day. I went to one of the London sessions, at the Royal Horticultural Halls in Westminster. Previously the Fair had called at Manchester, Bristol, Brighton and Edinburgh, spending two days in each city. Every session on every day sold out. The queues to get in are biblical.

Once inside, there are about 80 stands. I must admit that I tasted a lot of wines that were pretty average. But there were several very good wines on show as well that I would be more than happy to buy and drink. Over the coming festive months, if I happen to pass a Tesco on my way to a party, I’m sure I will. But sure enough there were wines at the other end of the scale… I think it’s fair to say that most of the worst wines on the market are made by big commercial wineries – and a good number were in attendance here.

Working in wine, you get spoiled. It would be easy to lose touch with the average wine drinker. There are multiple industry tastings on every day, many exhibiting unusual, rare or valuable wines. The Tesco press tasting will, of course, only show what they consider to be their very best wines, but many of these will be limited to their bigger stores. I want to taste the other stuff they sell too. The big names you see in all the supermarkets. The ones that are often on promotion; which are the wines most people in the UK take home and drink. So every year I go to the Tesco Wine Fair to see which brands are improving, and which are sliding downhill. There are always a few surprises.

Consistency of quality across whole brands was rare. Many producers only offered a small number of wines from a large range. As such, it is difficult to generalise here about the entire production of any particular brand. For each brand, I tasted all the wines they had on show. Next time you find yourself in Tesco in need of a decent bottle I hope this is a useful page to pull up.

Needless to say, it’s not just the big brands that you can find at Tesco. Many of their Finest range are very good, and they also stock some quality wines by some interesting smaller producers. The Tesco Wine Fair I attended was packed, and it was well organised, with useful regular 20 minute smaller guided tastings on specific topics. It’s great to see so many people, and so many different types of people, all getting stuck in and tasting. As a beginner it’s not such a bad place to start – after all, these are the wines with the widest distribution. It’s good to know which ones are good – and which ones are not.




The Good


Wolf Blass

The Chardonnay, though admittedly not the cheapest, was one of the best wines I tasted all day. The sparkling wines were less successful.

All prices quoted are in-store prices per bottle when off promotion.


Silver Label Chardonnay 2009 £13.00: 89 points, good value

Silver Label Shiraz Cabernet 2008 £13.00: 88 points, fair value

Sparkling Rosé NV £9.49: 85 points, fair value

Sparkling Brut NV £9.49: 84 points, not great value


Jacob’s Creek

Another very good Chardonnay, one of the best sub-£10 wines on show. Their Moscatos, while interesting to see they are experimenting with this style, tasted a bit confected, especially the rosé.


Reserve Chardonnay 2009 £9.99: 88 points, fair value

Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2010 £9.99: 87 points, fair value

Moscato 2010 £7.49: 85 points, fair value

Moscato Rosé 2010 £7.49: 82 points, not great value



These two were relatively elegant compared to many of the Australian branded wines I tasted, not overdone.


Nottage Hill Chardonnay 2010 £7.99: 87 points, fair value

Nottage Hill Cabernet Shiraz 2010 £7.99: 87 points, fair value



Reasonably solid stuff, particularly their dry Riesling.


Koonunga Hill Riesling 2010 £8.54: 88 points, good value

Koonunga Hill Retro 76 Shiraz Cabernet 2009 £8.54: 87 points, fair value



One of the most consistent ranges I tasted, not brilliant but not at all bad.


Classic Chardonnay 2010 £7.79: 87 points, fair value

Classic The Semillon Blanc 2011 £7.79: 86 points, fair value

Classic Shiraz 2010 £7.79: 86 points, fair value

Classic Merlot 2010 £7.11: 86 points, fair value

Classic Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 £7.79: 86 points, fair value

Classic Pinot Grigio 2010 £7.79: 85 points, fair value


Oxford Landing Estates

Consistently decent quality cheaper options.


Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 2009 £6.99: 87 points, fair value

Sauvignon Blanc 2011 £6.99: 86 points, fair value

Chardonnay 2010 £6.99: 86 points, fair value

Merlot 2009 £6.99: 86 points, fair value


Oyster Bay

Their white wines are definitely their stronger suit.


Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011 £9.79: 87 points, fair value

Marlborough Chardonnay 2010 £9.79: 87 points, fair value

Hawkes Bay Merlot 2010 £9.79: 85 points, not great value

Sparkling Cuvée Brut NV £13.00: 84 points, not great value

Marlborough Pinot Noir 2010 £10.79: 83 points, not great value


Casillero del Diablo

Though not as good value as they once were, the quality is still pretty good.


Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 £7.79: 87 points, fair value

Malbec 2009 £7.40: 86 points, fair value

Sauvignon Blanc 2010 £7.79: 86 points, fair value

Pinot Grigio 2010 £7.40: 85 points, not great value



Pretty big wines as you would expect, but with some complexity of flavour.


Golden Reserve Malbec 2008 £10.99: 88 points, fair value

Reserve Malbec 2010 £9.00: 87 points, fair value



If you need some cheaper options, you could do worse than opt for the first two here. The more expensive wines aren’t worth the extra.


Negroamaro Zinfandel 2010 £4.55: 85 points, good value

Catarratto Chardonnay 2010 £4.99: 85 points, good value

Pinot Grigio Veneto 2010 £6.48: 85 points, not great value

Merlot Sicilia 2010 £6.99: 85 points, not great value


The Bad


Arniston Bay

With better quality and value elsewhere, though not awful, these have little to recommend about them.


Orginals Chenin/Chardonnay 2010 £7.29: 83 points, poor value

Originals Cabernet/Merlot 2010 £6.99: 83 points, not great value

Originals Pinotage Rosé 2010 £6.79: 83 points, not great value


Black Tower

There was something about these wines that tasted unnatural.


Black Tower Silvaner Pinot Grigio 2010 £5.79: 82 points, not great value

Black Tower Rosé 2010 £5.68: 82 points, not great value

Black Tower Fruity White 2010 £4.58: 82 points, not great value


Blossom Hill

Confected flavours, and surprisingly expensive really, especially the White Zinfandel.


Vineyard Collection White 2010 £5.99: 82 points, not great value

Vineyard Collection Red 2010 £5.99: 81 points, not great value

White Zinfandel 2010 £6.29: 79 points, poor value


The Ugly


Gallo Family Vineyards

I can understand the appeal of these in as much as eating a bag of sweets. The wines are all in fact slightly sweet – not in itself a bad thing – but the flavours are reminiscent of jelly sweets. And hey, I like jelly sweets. But at the end of the day, there are more delicious, more authentic and more nourishing things to eat, if you know what I mean.


Sauvignon Blanc 2010 £6.48: 84 points, fair value

Pinot Grigio 2010 £6.48: 82 points, not great value

Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 £6.48: 81 point, poor value

Merlot Rosé 2010 £6.29: 81 points, poor value

Summer Red NV £6.16: 79 points, poor value

Last, and indeed least:

White Grenache 2010 £6.48: an unprecedented 78 points, poor value


The future of wine packaging part 2: Bag-in-box, bang up-to-date

In yesterday's post, I mentioned a company called Sfuso who supply a couple of the shops in London that offer wine refill services. I met with the owner, Marina Janković,  to taste through her small range of wines in her shared office space in East London. The company sprang from her experiences living in Italy buying ‘sfuso’ wine i.e. taking refillable containers direct to the winemaker to fill up straight from the tank, much like the French ‘en vrac’. Compared to buying bottled wine in the UK, it was much cheaper, and much better for the environment. Her aim is to supply wine like this direct to businesses and individuals in the UK.

The company’s strong ethical stance is at the core of everything it does, so to begin with, the winemakers are paid a fair price for their produce, and all their wines are organic. They work with ‘anti-pizzo’ (anti-mafia) co-operatives to ensure the payment finds its way to the right pocket. To reduce the weight of the containers, and therefore the carbon footprint, bag-in-box is used as opposed to the more typical hard plastic containers (it also helps keep the wine fresh for longer). The unbleached cardboard boxes are sent flat-packed to the wineries along with the internal bags, who then fill them up, and palletise the boxed wine. These are then shipped by train from Italy to the UK to further minimise carbon use from shipping.

But what of the wines? They are akin to the wines you would refill your plastic container with at the local winery; relatively simple quaffing wines, but with authenticity and a sense of place. Perfectly decent for mid-week drinking or for big parties. Often the complaints about bag-in-box wines on the market is that they are mass-produced, anonymous, characterless or poorly made. This is not the case with these examples.

Like bag-in-box, the screwcap was long a pariah amongst wine drinkers, mostly because it was indeed a sign that what was in the bottle was crap. This was until some forward-looking producers, convinced of its value, started using it, and we drinkers caught on to its benefits and learned to love it. Surely this is the future story of bag-in-box – it keeps wine fresh for weeks, and ecologically speaking, clearly is a better option than heavy glass bottles that take huge amounts of energy to manufacture and transport. But the quality and value of what is in the package is paramount – and Sfuso have just about nailed it. Fine wines for long ageing will continue to require glass bottles and corks for the foreseeable future, but these top-end wines are only a tiny proportion of global wine production. As long as what is in the box is good quality, there’s no reason that we shouldn’t see more everyday wines moving in this direction in the not-so-distant future.

For more on bulk wines, Andrew Jefford has recently written this excellent article on the Decanter magazine website.


The wines:




Organic Rosso Toscano IGT 2010
A blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Tuscany, Italy
£22.19 for 3 litre bag-in-box (£5.55 per bottle equivalent) available at Sfuso (www.sfusowine.com)

Bright ruby colour with an attractive perfume of cherry and red fruits. Medium-bodied with good acidity and medium levels of chewy tannin. Fresh, with some depth of red and black cherry fruit. 87 points, good value.

Organic Nero d’Avola IGT 2010
100% Nero d’Avola grape from Sicily, Italy
£23.99 for 3 litre bag-in-box (£6.00 per bottle equivalent) available at Sfuso (www.sfusowine.com)

Plummy, with some black cherry and a hint of tar and licorice. Medium-bodied, fairly light in tannin with medium acidity. Fruity yet savoury finish. 86 points, fair value.




Organic Bianco Toscano IGT 2010
100% Vermentino grape from Tuscany, Italy
£22.19 for 3 litre bag-in-box (£5.55 per bottle equivalent) available at Sfuso (www.sfusowine.com)

Floral, slightly herby peach and apricot on the nose. Medium-bodied, with a silky mouthfeel. Well balanced. 86 points, good value.

Organic Catarratto IGT 2010
100% Catarratto grape from Sicily, Italy
£23.99 for 3 litre bag-in-box (£6.00 per bottle equivalent) available at Sfuso (www.sfusowine.com)

Medium yellow-gold in colour. Perfumed apricot with a hint of peach and orange peel. Small oxidative element, no more than you would expect from a natural wine from this region due minimal sulphur use. Medium- to full-bodied with a slightly chewy texture. Appetising, with good balancing acidity. 86 points, fair value.

The future of wine packaging part 1: None at all

I took a stroll down Amwell Street in Islington a couple of days ago and discovered a rather interesting shop. While some stores charge for plastic bags to help reduce landfill waste, Unpackaged go several steps further and remove almost all packaging from everything they sell. From nuts to pasta, from jam to shampoo, the idea is to bring your own container from home and refill it. Not only does this lead to less waste and associated pollution, but it can also save you money on your weekly shop.

I had a quick look in the drinks section, and was surprised to see that they offer this service with wine. You can bring your own empty bottle to refill from one of their two little wooden barrels (discreetly filled with bags or ‘bladders’ of wine to keep it fresh), or you can buy various sizes of reusable glass bottles with swing-top caps if you don’t have anything suitable to hand. Owner Catherine Conway explained that although some customers are reticent to experiment at first due to the poor image bulk wine suffers from, many of her customers are now in the habit of bringing back their bottle and filling it up.



Unpackaged aren’t the only ones doing this. Borough Wines, with shops in London Bridge and Hackney, offer a similar service. Wholefoods Market on Kensington High Street also offer bulk wines on tap. And in Norfolk, Reno Wine operate a delivery and collection service of locally bottled Languedoc wines, with discounts if you return the bottle to be refilled. If you know of any others, please let me know in the box below.

Though the green credentials of this approach are obvious, what matters when it comes to long-term success is the quality of the wine. Catherine was keen to underline Unpackaged’s “commitment to high quality product, which is essential to inspire customers to get into the habit of refilling”. And with the absence of brands, there is no hiding place for products that don’t stack up in terms of quality and value.

Both Borough Wines and Unpackaged buy some of their wines from a company called Sfuso, based in East London that specialise in bag-in-box wines of various sizes. Having recently read Fiona Beckett’s recent damning write-up for The Guardian on boxed wines, I didn’t have very high expectations… but this company didn't appear in her piece, so I paid them a visit to taste through their wines and see for myself. I’ll let you know how I got on in the next post tomorrow.

Majestic Wine Warehouses: Last man standing

There have been a lot of changes on the high street over the past few years when it comes to buying wine. Not so long ago, if you needed to get your hands on a bottle, you could pop out to the local off-licence: Victoria Wine, Unwins, Wine Rack, or the like. There would never be one far away, in every town around the UK.

But since then, more and more of us have bought our wines at the supermarket along with the weekly shop. The big off-licence chains found it harder and harder to find a point of difference or match their prices, and, like wounded dinosaurs, stumbled around before falling to earth with a terrible crash. First Unwins in 2005; then Victoria Wine, Wine Rack, Haddows, The Local and Threshers; and finally this year, the majority of Oddbins stores closed their doors for good.

Amongst the carnage, one big chain still stands tall, and that is Majestic Wine Warehouses. Thanks to their winning formula of out-of-town sites with good parking, free delivery, knowledgeable staff and low prices they are making a good profit. Unfortunately, you have to buy a minimum of six or sometimes even twelve bottles, so not terribly useful if you are on foot or on your way to a party. But they have a solid range of wines, and there are always a few bargains to be had.

They are a big operation, with 173 stores, and they intend to continue growing. This huge scale does have an impact on their range. One of the principle benefits is buying power; this, coupled with some pretty canny buyers means low prices. The other side of the coin however is that they need to appeal to a wide customer base, which rules out some of the more weird and wonderful wines out there. Added to this, they need to buy in big volumes, so some smaller estates that make great wine wouldn’t be worth their while.

That said the overall quality is good. One area in which they are looking very strong at the moment is in Regional France, with a number of very good value wines around the £5 - £10 mark. When it comes to stocking up on good week-day drinking, Majestic remain a useful supplier.



Some highlights:




Codorníu Selección Raventós NV Cava
A blend of Xarel-Lo, Macabeo and Chardonnay grapes from Northern Spain
£9.99 – down to £7.49 from 01/11/11 to 30/01/12 – available at Majestic

Inviting savoury, yeasty nose. This is a very good cava with concentrated flavours of apple, pear and biscuit, with a full, voluptuous fizz. Well balanced, medium length. 89 points, good value.

Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV Champagne
A blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes from Champagne, France
£39.00 – down to £27.00 from 22/11/11 to 30/01/12 – available at Majestic

Consistently one of the best Grande Marque Champagne houses, this is a rich, full-bodied style with good concentration of flavour. Green apple, redcurrant and whitecurrant on the nose, with rich yeasty flavours and a full, soft fizz. Long finish with some complexity. 91 points, fair value, good value on promotion.




Saint Michel Blanc Perlé 2010
A blend of Loin de L’Oeil, Muscadelle and Mauzac grapes from Gaillac, Southern France
£7.99 – down to £5.99 if you buy two bottles from 01/11/11 to 30/01/12 – available at Majestic

Light and floral nose with hints of fennel. Feels full of life on the palate with good concentration of flavour and real purity. 86 points, good value, very good value on promotion.

Les Hauts de Bergelle Blanc, Saint Mont, 2009
A blend of Arrufiac, Petit Courbu and Gros Manseng grapes from Saint Mont, Southern France
£7.99 – down to £5.99 if you buy two bottles from 01/11/11 to 30/01/12 – available at Majestic

Though not currently very expressive on the nose, this full-bodied white has lots of fruit and flavour in the mouth, with tangy acidity and a lovely smooth texture. Nicely integrated oak. 87 points, good value, very good value on promotion.

Domaine de l’Aigle Limoux Chardonnay, Gérard Bertrand, 2009
100% Chardonnay grape from Limoux, Southern France
£9.99 – down to £8.49 if you buy two bottles from 01/11/11 to 30/01/12 – available at Majestic

Attractive slightly oaky nose with ripe melon fruit. Full and creamy, but with enough acidity to balance it. Pure, mineral finish. 88 points, very good value.

Meursault, Louis Jadot, 2008
100% Chardonnay grape from Burgundy, France
£20.00 available at Majestic

I’m always wary of a relatively cheap Meursault, but this is good. Aromas of lime cordial, hazelnut and toasted bread. Full bodied, with good acidity and real complexity. Long and impressive. 89 points, good value.




Saint Michel Rouge 2009
A blend of Braucol, Syrah and Merlot grapes from Gaillac, Southern France
£7.99 – down to £5.99 if you buy two bottles from 01/11/11 to 30/01/12 – available at Majestic

Freshly squished black fruits and the nose. Medium bodied, with attractive, juicy fruit flavours. Not heavy, well made. 87 points, good value, very good value on promotion.

Château Jouaninel 2009
A blend of Negrette and Cabernet Franc grapes from Fronton, Southern France
£7.99 – down to £5.99 if you buy two bottles from 01/11/11 to 30/01/12 – available at Majestic

Spicy and peppery with some appetising whiffs of burnt duck fat. Full bodied, with ripe mouth-coating tannins giving it good grip. Intensely flavoursome, with fresh fruit flavours and a fresh finish. Great stuff. 89 points, good value, very good value on promotion.

Château Aigues Vives ‘Cuvée d’Exception’ 2007
A blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan grapes from Corbières, Southern France
£9.99 – down to £6.99 if you buy two bottles from 01/11/11 to 30/01/12 – available at Majestic

Baking spices and cigar tobacco on the nose, with both fresh plum and damson and some fruitcake flavours on the palate. Balanced, with a light fresh finish. Starting to mature nicely, this is a good Corbières. 90 points, good value, very good value on promotion.

Morellino di Scansano, Poggioargentiera, 2010
A blend of Sangiovese and Ciliegiolo grapes from Tuscany, Italy
£11.99 – down to £8.99 if you buy two bottles from 01/11/11 to 30/01/12 – available at Majestic

I’ve long been a fan of this wine, and the 2010 vintage is another good result. Chocolate and cherry notes on the nose, with really lively fruit flavours. Good acidity and tannins (structure) to hold it all together. Impressive length. 90 points, good value.

Rioja Reserva Especial, Viña Ardanza, La Rioja Alta, 2001
A blend of 80% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha (Grenache) grapes from Rioja, Spain
£22.00 – down to £17.00 if you buy two bottles from 01/11/11 to 30/01/12 – available at Majestic

2001 was an exceptional vintage in Rioja, and La Rioja Alta is a great traditional producer. This has a very appealing leathery, spicy, savoury nose. Bright red fruits, with some savoury notes starting to come through after its 10 years of maturation. The tannins are firm but ripe, and lovely bright acidity balances out the ripe red and black fruit flavours. Long finish, and a very long life ahead of it. Impressive stuff. 93 points, good value.


Anything to avoid?

All in all it was a solid performance, with few if any stinkers. But I would avoid:

Tautavel ‘Hommage aux Vignerons’ Côtes de Roussillon Villages 2007
100% Grenache Noir grapes from Roussillon, Southern France
£19.99 available in Majestic

Dried fruit on the nose, with a hint of oxidation. More dried fruit on the palate, prune and raisin, but also some intense damson flavours. High, unbalanced levels of alcohol. 84 points, poor value.

Why Californian wine is so expensive in the UK

It’s easy to forget how new California is to making wine. Whilst in Napa Valley last month, I had the good fortune of meeting John Shafer – founder of the eponymous estate situated in the Stags Leap district. He is one of the founding fathers of Californian wine, and though hardly a spring chicken, is still as sharp as a knife. Their first vintage was the 1978. To give it some perspective, Barone Ricasoli in Chianti, for example, has been making wine since 1141.

One charge that is often levelled against Californian wine in the UK is that it is so expensive. John brought it up before I had the chance to, and I had to admit that it is still seen as an issue over here. It is possible to buy good value Californian wines, but they are relatively few and far between, particularly at the £8 - £20 mark, compared to most other famous wine regions such as the Rhône, the Mosel, Chianti and Rioja.

That wineries are relatively new in California, compared to many of the great wine regions of Europe, is one reason. Being a relatively young winemaking region, many wineries are still being paid for, and this investment is still being recouped by factoring it in to the price of the wine. The hardware required to set up a winery is very costly, and there is a large initial payout required before you can even start making any wine. Added to this, particularly in Napa, since there have been so many success stories of cult wineries charging huge sums per bottle, land is extremely expensive to buy.

Many of the great wine estates of Europe were established and paid for generations ago, so they aren’t still obliged to recoup their initial outlay in the wines they are selling today. As such they can afford to charge less. And as Ted Lemon of Littorai pointed out, not so long ago you could get an EU grant to help set up a winery in European countries. Not so in California – you have to stump up the cash yourself.

Pricing in California seems rather more meritocratic than in Europe. If a wine tastes good compared to its peers, then that is the most important factor when it comes to justifying a price in the local market. Whether it reflects terroir or if it has a long-established reputation is secondary to the quality of the juice in the bottle.

Many of the wine producers I spoke to were keen to see their wines better represented in the UK, but when they speak to UK agents and shippers, the winery is told that their wine is simply too expensive and it just won’t sell over here. And since many of the top wineries have no problem selling all of their production in the States, it doesn’t make sense to drop their prices and make less money just to get their wines on the shelves in the UK. But while there is any disparity in value between Californian wines and those of the other great winemaking regions of the world – due to recouping investment, less brand recognition, an (incorrect) perceived lack of quality compared to other regions, or a general lack of understanding of the region – the UK is likely to remain underrepresented when it comes to the greatest wines of California. And as drinkers, we will be all the poorer for it.

Waitrose: Still the best supermarket for wine

This year Waitrose have won all four major drinks awards for ‘Supermarket of the Year’ (International Wine Challenge, International Wine & Spirit Competition, Decanter World Wine Awards and Drinks Retailing Awards) and it’s not hard to see why. Their recent range tasting was not without its ups and downs, but the diamond bottles outweighed the underperformers. They have been at the top of their game for a number of years now (with an honourable mention to the excellent EH Booth who have 26 stores around the North of England).

It’s a shame that they continue to list some of the less interesting, big brand wines from the likes of Blossom Hill and Yellow Tail; as long as that is the case, it’s hard to recommend them unreservedly – it is still possible to pick up something dull if you don’t know what to avoid. But largely the wines on show at the tasting at least were of a high quality. While we are seeing more and more good quality independent wine merchants crop up at the moment, they are still a relatively rare sight. In the meantime, Waitrose offer one of the few high street shops in England (well, the South of England at least) offering a reliable, good value wine selection over multiple sites.

One great new initiative that they are looking into is reducing the weight of glass bottles in their wines and spirits. Many winemakers see a big heavy bottle as an important signifier of quality, so insist on putting their wines, especially their top bottlings, in thumping great lumps of glass before shipping them off around the world. This seems to be a particularly common practice in North America, and especially South America. A bottle of wine is a heavy enough thing to have to cart around as it is without pumping it up like a steroid-addicted body builder. This will not only help to reduce carbon emissions, but it will also mean that less money is spent on packaging, so more can be invested into what goes inside it. Keep up the good work.



Some highlights:




Henri Fessy Brouilly 2010
100% Gamay grape from Beaujolais, France
£10.99 available at most Waitrose stores

Dry, but with silky, juicy sweet fruit. Medium bodied with flavours of small red berries and a nice tannic grip. Good length and interest. 89 points, good value.

Tino da Ânfora 2008
A blend of 50% Aragónez, 30% Tinta Nacional, 10% Trincadeira, 5% Alfrochiero and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Alentejo, Portugal
£7.99 available at most Waitrose stores

Intense dark sweet fruit, well balanced with admirable length. Good quaffing stuff. 88 points, good value.

Villa Antinori Rosso 2008
55% Sangiovese, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 5% Syrah grapes from Tuscany, Italy
£14.99 available at most Waitrose stores

Deep, inviting, earthy nose with a some herbal aromas. Medium to full bodied, juicy and modern. Approachable and enjoyable with a pleasingly long finish. A crowd pleaser. 88 points, fair value.



Simonnet-Febvre Sauvignon de Saint Bris 2010
100% Sauvignon Blanc grape from Burgundy, France
£9.49 available at most Waitrose stores

Appealing gooseberry and fennel nose, not too in-your-face. Medium bodied and balanced with noticeable acidity and a softness to the impression on the palate. Appetising, would work well with food. 89 points, good value.

Catena Chardonnay 2010
100% Chardonnay grape from Mendoza, Argentina
£11.99 available at most Waitrose stores

Full bodied Chardonnay with a smooth, silky mouthfeel. Tropical fruit and peach balanced with good acidity with a long spicy finish. Irresistible at this price. 89 points, good to very good value.

Domaine Paul Blanck Gewurztraminer 2010
100% Gewurztraminer grape from Alsace, France
£13.99 (down to £10.99 from 19/10/11 to 08/11/11) available at most Waitrose stores

I’m a sucker for Gewurz, the sluttiest of white grapes. This one has a relatively restrained nose of lychees, with that tendency to soapiness that it can have sometimes. Fat and full bodied with a hint of sweetness, but shot through with zingy acidity. 90 points, good value, very good value on offer.


The following are less widely available but worth seeking out:


Palacio de Fefiñanes Albariño 2010
100% Albariño grape from Rías Baixas, Spain
£15.99 available at Waitrose Wine Direct and 6 branches

One of the oldest producers of Albariño in Spain, Fefiñanes make one of the best, and this new vintage is no exception. Floral (jasmine) nose with a medium-bodied but intense peach and apricot palate. Buzzing acidity right into the long, mineral, almost saline finish. A really vibrant and refreshing wine. 91 points, good value.

Domaine des Escaravailles ‘La Galopine’ Rasteau Blanc 2010
A blend of 45% Roussanne, 45% Marsanne and 10% Viognier grapes from Côtes du Rhône, France
£18.99 available at Waitrose Wine Direct and at John Lewis, Oxford Street, London

Enticing pineapple, peach and apricot fruit on the nose and the palate, with a pleasing full bodied, almost oily mouthfeel, shot through with piercing acidity. Good length, with a hint of aniseed and dill, and a toasty finish thanks for fermentation in oak barrels (25% new oak). Real complexity and lovely balance. 91 points, good value.


One to avoid?

All in all the wines on show were to a high standard. Although I do have reservations about a few of their English wines. And:

Williams and Humbert 12-Year Old Collection Oloroso Sherry NV
Palomino grapes from Jerez, Spain
£7.99 for a half bottle available in some Waitrose stores

Lacks intensity and depth of flavour for an oloroso. A lightweight amongst what is otherwise a good range of fortified wines. 82 points, not great value.

The Wine Society: Impressive value

In a world of Enomatic machines, crowd sourcing and Twitter fire-sales, The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society Limited might sound like a bit of a throwback. They are a co-operative society; they have ‘1874’ proudly stamped on their logo; they are based in a large office in Stevenage. Sexy they are not. But their wines are. And they are unbelievably cheap.

It is one of over 5,450 independent co-operatives in the UK in fact, but the only one whose sole purpose is wine. It was set up to provide authentic, high quality bottles to members in the late 19th century by a Major General Henry Scott, and continues to do so today. Its status as a co-operative explains why its wines are such good value. It is a not-for-profit company owned by its members, so their buyers are not concerned with making money. All they need to do is source the best wines and sell them on at the lowest possible price.

Once considered very much part of the Establishment, they were possibly the least cool place you could buy your wines from. But they have been gradually bringing themselves up-to-date, using new media like Facebook, Twitter and their iPhone app to reach a new audience. Ten years ago the average member was in his or her mid-50s. Now it’s mid-40s. But they do have members in the 20s and 30s too as their membership base widens. Winning both the Decanter National Wine Merchant of the Year 2011 and the International Wine Challenge Merchant of the Year 2011 should help bring more attention to the quality and value of what they offer.

So what’s the catch? There’s a joining fee of £40. But you’ll probably save that much on your first case or two, so don’t let it stop you. And once you have membership, you have it for life. You can even bequeath it to someone in your will. Some of their members are fifth generation, the original membership having been bought in as early as 1875 and handed down ever since. Now that is getting your money’s worth.

I tasted through 60 new additions to their range the other day, and the quality was very high. In general their list is strong in most regions, particularly classic French such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhône. It’s complemented by sizeable, well-chosen selections from the other most recognised Old and New World countries, and a few more unusual ones such as Greece are also present.

If I had to pick holes, it would be nice to see some older mature wines back into the 90s and beyond available; some more natural wines (though there is a section for organic and biodynamic wines); and some more adventurous Champagnes. And if you really want to splash the cash on the very top end, you’ll have to go elsewhere, as few bottles go over the £100 mark. But overall this is a interesting, reliable, high quality list.



Some highlights:




L’Orbois, Jean Christophe Mandard 2010
Orbois grape from Loire, France
£7.95 from The Wine Society

An unusual grape variety from an unusual part of the Loire. Apple and quince on the nose with a musky note not unlike Chenin Blanc. Medium bodied with zippy fruity acidity. Very dry mineral finish, like sucking a stone. Characterful and great value. 89 points, very good value.


Pinot Bianco Isonzo del Friuli, Lorenzon 2010
Pinot Blanc grape from Friuli, Italy
£8.75 at The Wine Society

Perfumed, fresh, subtle but very drinkable and classy wine. Medium bodied, with bright, clean aromas and flavours of freshly cut conference pear. Elegant and balanced with a mineral finish. Understated, not in your face but good quality. 89 points, good value.


Domaine de Bellivière ‘Prémices’, Jasnières 2009
Chenin Blanc grape from Loire, France
£16.00 at The Wine Society

Fresh victoria plum on the nose with a faintly oxidative element. Honey and sweet fruit (apple, quince) that ride on into the finish on the back of a firm acidic streak. Finishes dry. A rollercoaster. 92 points, good value.


Maycas Qebrada Seca Chardonnay 2008
Chardonnay grape from Limari, Chile
£20.00 at The Wine Society

Chalk dust and honeycomb – still young and not giving off much fruit on the nose. Lots on the palate though – tangy, limey, fresh and intense. Long honeyed, toasty finish. Waves of complexity and flavour with a really appetising texture. Exciting and exceptional. 94 points, very good value.




Percheron Old Vine Cinsault, Boutinot 2010
Cinsault grape from Western Cape, South Africa
£5.95 from The Wine Society

Fresh and floral with bright cherry fruit. Lots of body and flavoursome sweet fruit. Long finish for such a cheap wine. Unusual and refreshing. 89 points, very good value.


Thymiopoulos Naoussa 2009
Xynomavro grape from Macedonia, Greece
£10.95 at The Wine Society

Fragrant raspberries and blueberries with aromas of dried herbs. Medium bodied, with a nice viscous mouthfeel, all cut through by lively fresh acidity. Flavours of licorice and strawberry go on into the finish. Real finesse and balance. 91 points, very good value.