Supermarket Bargains

More than half of all wine bought in the UK comes from supermarkets, but I rarely run courses focussing entirely in that area. Perhaps I should do so more often as my advert in Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre’s brochure gained an immediate response and the session was fully booked long before the day.

Supermarket customers expect low prices so I set myself a budget of £100 to buy 12 bottles – an average of around £8 a bottle. Among the wines I chose, several were from the supermarkets’ own label ranges, which are often good value and are the result of collaboration between their wine buyers and major producers in the various regions.

So, how did the wines go down? There were 4 clear favourites in the vote at the end of the day:

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The top dry white was the delightfully floral and fragrant Fetească Regală from Romania, part of Asda’s Wine Atlas range (an unbelievable bargain at only £5.25). Apart from its gaudy label, this would be an easy bottle to leave on the shelf, but that would be a mistake. Fetească Regală is a native grape to Romania and rarely seen elsewhere, but is clearly capable of producing delicious wines and Asda have found a real winner here.

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2 wines tied as the group’s favourite red: Tesco’s Finest Malbec (£8) was no surprise to me. Made for Tesco by one of Argentina’s most respected producers, Catena, this is lovely with flavours of blackberries and plums with hints of pepper and spice from brief oak ageing.

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The other joint red winner was Zalze’s Shiraz/Mourvèdre/Viognier blend from South Africa. Rich (14.5% alcohol) and spicy and with attractive black & red forest fruits, this will benefit from a little time and from decanting. Currently on special offer at a ridiculously cheap £6 in Morrisons (£7.50 after the 28 January) although Waitrose shoppers will have to pay £9 for the same wine.

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But the most popular of all was the dessert wine that we ended the day with. Lidl’s Pacherenc du Vic Bilh (£7.99) from south-west France is another bottle that would be easy to pass by. Quite delicate for a sweet wine but with lovely peach and honey flavours, this would be perfect with, say, an apple flan or try it with a blue cheese.

Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable day for all and clear proof that, if you look carefully, there are bargains to be found in your local supermarket.

For readers local to Bristol, my next Stoke Lodge course is on Saturday 7 March and focusses on wines from Germany, Austria and Hungary. For more details and to book: http://www.bristolcourses.com

Sherries to Inspire

What better theme for a tasting at this time of the year than ‘Sherry, Port and Madeira’? Although sales of all alcoholic drinks peak around now, wine merchants will tell you that these 3 are particularly seasonal. And so, for my latest day course at Stoke Lodge in Bristol, I took along a selection of old favourites combined with some less well-known bottles hoping to inspire the group of enthusiasts who signed up.

As the Ports and Madeiras all had an element of sweetness in them, I began with the sherries and the most delicate and driest of all, a Fino.

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La Ina is widely available around £9.50 but its purity of flavour and length suggests something much more expensive. While grapes for a Fino can be grown anywhere within the Jerez region of south-west Spain, the Manzanilla vineyards are nearer the coast around the town of Sanlucar de Barameda, giving that sherry a slightly salty tang. My choice, a Pasada (£11.95 from the Wine Society), is a particular kind of Manzanilla which has spent around 7 years in barrel, giving a more mellow, nutty flavour.

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Oloroso sherries are altogether richer and fuller in taste and are a much darker colour. Many are sweetened before bottling but I found a delicious dry example in Lustau’s Almacenista range (£17.99, Waitrose Cellar) – as smooth as any I have tasted.

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For the final sherry, I went to the opposite extreme: the lusciously sweet, almost treacly Tio Toto Pedro Ximenez (Wine Society, £13.95). Pedro Ximenez, or PX to its friends, is often used to sweeten other sherries but here, on its own, it would make a perfect accompaniment to Christmas Pudding or – my favourite – poured over good quality vanilla ice cream. It also paired nicely with some chocolate cake generously brought along by one of the class to celebrate a birthday.

And then we broke for lunch. A good place to end this Blog. Next time, I’ll tell you about the equally delightful Madeiras and Ports I shared with the group in the afternoon.

A ‘Blind’ Challenge

Two glassesTwo glasses of wine; you’re told that they’re from the same region and the same blend of grapes but nothing else – except that one is from the bargain basement shelf (£4.50), the other more than twice as expensive (£11).  How confident would you be of distinguishing which was which?

That’s the challenge I gave to a group recently during one of the day courses I was running at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre.  How did they do?  All except 1 person got it right!

So, are ‘blind’ challenges easy?  It depends on what you’re being asked to do.  Those where you have to completely identify a wine are difficult – no, let’s be honest – they’re bordering on impossible unless you’re an expert in that particular type of wine.  However, simply having to pick the better quality wine is much easier.  In fact, as I told my group, you need to ignore what the wines taste like and just concentrate on two aspects:

Firstly, which of the wines has greater length in the mouth?  By this, I mean, when you have tasted both and swallowed or spat them out, which has flavours that remain in your mouth for longer?  Better wines usually have more staying power while cheaper ones, however attractive at first, disappear very quickly.

If that doesn’t answer the question, then see how many different flavours you can pick in each wine.  Complexity is always a sign of a good wine and the more different flavours, the better.

By choosing a £4.50 wine as one of the players, I actually made the test much easier than if I had asked the group to compare, say, a £10 and a £20 wine.  In the UK, the way we tax our wines means that, proportionally, a cheap wine bears a higher rate of duty than a more expensive one.  Stripping out this and other non-wine costs (the bottle, transport, retailer’s profit, etc) meant that the wine alone in the dearer bottle was worth not twice the cheaper but closer to 10 times as much.  A tip for us all!

Bordeaux, Burgundy or…?

When you buy your wine, do you focus on Bordeaux, Burgundy and the other traditional regions of France or, do think, as one friend of mine said, that these areas are living in the past and trading on a reputation that is no longer justified?  For me, that criticism is a little harsh, but I can understand that many find wines from California or Australia are just so much more approachable and usually better value. 

But, I wanted to put the traditional areas to the test and so I advertised a course entitled ‘The Classic Wines of France’ at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre – a good move as the day was fully booked in record time with a waiting list!  No pressure then!  I just had to find the wines for my eager group to taste.

I wanted plenty of variety and so chose 4 wines from each of Bordeaux and Burgundy plus 2 each from the Loire and Rhône.  And, when I asked the group to choose their favourites at the end of the day, the results were very close with a single vote separating the top 4 wines.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the opposition, the 2 Loire whites shared top spot:

2017-11-16 10.43.18Bertrand Jeannot’s steely fresh Pouilly Fumé (Wine Society, £13.50) showed the benefit of extended lees ageing, while the crisp, fragrant demi-sec Vouvray from Château de Montfort (Waitrose, £11.99) had already been a winner at a previous wine course of mine, having been chosen by those who came to the ‘Wine Rivers of Europe’ day earlier in the year.

But reds from Bordeaux and Burgundy (both from the Wine Society) were close behind:  2017-11-16 10.44.11Château Sénéjac is everything you’d hope a Bordeaux red would be – lovely black fruits and just a hint of tannin; the only surprise is the price: £12.95 – a reflection, I suppose, that it is only an AC Haut-Medoc and not something grander.  No such bargains, sadly, from Burgundy but the group clearly thought Domaine Tollot-Beaut’s Chorey-les-Beaune justified its price tag (£23) with the typical, slightly perfumed Côtes de Beaune style of Pinot Noir coming through particularly well. 

So, is the reputation of these areas justified?  I think the day proved conclusively yes!  Provided you’re prepared to pay a little beyond every day prices, the ‘Classic’ areas of France certainly offer some delightful and very drinkable wines that really shouldn’t be ignored by any wine lover.

Wine Rivers – Revisited

Back last autumn, I blogged about a series of evening classes I was running at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre under the title ‘Wine Rivers of Europe’.  Each week, I chose one of Europe’s rivers and we talked about and tasted the wines that are produced along its length and the influence of the river on those wines.  But, not everyone could give up 5 evenings and so, last Saturday, I ran an abbreviated version in just 1 day.  Despite leaving out a big chunk of the original material and only tasting 12 wines instead of 30, we still explored the importance of rivers to many of the wines we drink.  They affect climate – warming or cooling the area and helping to cut down on the effects of frost, they scour out deep channels with steep banks providing great exposure to the sun and better drainage and, in days when road transport was difficult, they were the easiest way to transport heavy cargoes – like wine – from one place to another.

The rivers I chose – the Loire, Rhône, Rhine, Danube and Douro/Duero – provided a wonderful diversity of wines, from a delicate Rhine Riesling to a rich, sweet LBV port and plenty in between.  And the class favourites on the day were equally diverse with 3 joint winners:

2017-05-19 12.26.50Château de Montfort’s Vouvray (Waitrose, £9.99) was clean and refreshing and just a little off-dry making it a perfect aperitif or a match for light summer meals or picnics. 

2017-05-19 12.27.25Peter and Ulrich Griebeler’s Dry Riesling from the Mosel (Majestic, £10.99) showed just how successful and attractive this modern take on German wine can be – delicate with lovely apple and ripe pear flavours and a really long clean finish. 

2017-05-19 12.28.49Of the reds, Lamatum’s Ribera del Duero Crianza (Majestic, £8.99) was a clear winner.  Made from 100% Tempranillo, this is grown high on Spain’s Central Plateau where the hot summer days are offset by cool nights giving a weighty but well balanced and black-fruited red – one that might be even better in a year or two.

In their different ways, each of the wines showed the effects of their closeness to rivers and the whole group agreed that this relationship was a fascinating topic to explore.

My next courses at Stoke Lodge will be after the summer break.  Log on to www.bristolcourses.com in a month or so when full details will be available and booking open. 

Spain’s Hidden Corners

In my view, Spain is one of the most exciting wine countries in the world today.  Wherever you look, you’ll find dedicated and innovative winemakers working with an array of high quality local grapes.  And it’s not just in the traditional areas – Rioja and sherry – that you find delicious wines.   I recently ran a course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre concentrating on Spain’s ‘Hidden Corners’ – some of the lesser-known regions and grapes – where you can find wines that are not just very drinkable but, because they are not well-known, they are also great value. 

The bottles I found for the group to taste provoked plenty of discussion – and some very diverse views; indeed, when I invited votes for favourite wines of the day, 11 of the 12 wines attracted at least 1 vote.  But, there were 2 clear winners:

ruedaSan Antolin’s Rueda (Waitrose, £8.99) comes from the Upper Duero Valley in western Spain where vineyards are planted more than 600 metres (1800 feet) above sea level.  The altitude means cool nights, even in summer, which help to retain precious acidity in the Verdejo grapes from which this wine is made, while the heat of the day results in perfect ripening and a succulent, rich but refreshing white wine.  Fine for drinking on its own but even better with some fish in a creamy sauce that reflects the character of the wine beautifully.  I’ve enjoyed this Rueda over a number of years and it was an unsurprising winner.

tempranillo-gran-reservaThe close runner up, however, was, perhaps, a little less predictable.  Not, I hasten to add, due to any lack of quality in the wine, but, I might have expected that the soft, mellow, cooked fruit and spice flavours of an 8 year old red that had spent 2 of those years in old oak casks wouldn’t have had such wide appeal.  Happily, I was wrong and Anciano’s Tempranillo Gran Reserva 2008 landed in a well-deserved 2nd place.  Had this wine been from Rioja rather than from the deeply unfashionable Valdepeñas area south of Madrid, it would certainly have been at least double the £8.99 I paid for it in Waitrose.  A bargain, indeed!

And bargains are what you can expect if you explore ‘Hidden Corners’.  You just have to know where to look.