Friday, December 19, 2008

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, December 14, 2008: Party drinks - not just wine!

If I could choose whatever I wanted, I would probably serve Krug Rosé at my own party. I like a handful of other champagnes just as much, but Krug Rosé makes a statement. You can’t ignore it. But this year, even more than usual, it’s a case of dream on. Like almost everybody else, I’m downsizing in terms of outlay, but I still intend the party to go off with a bang, not a whimper. So, the drinks below are aimed at all tastes, but not quite all budgets: in compiling this, I had value front of mind.

Sacchetto Prosecco Colli Trevigiani, £6.99
Frizzante (semi-sparkling) with lightly yeasty, fresh pear flavours - and a budget-friendly price (The Real Wine Company, 01753 885619).

Le Coltore Prosecco Brut, £8.79
Elegant and dry with a gentle apple and peach flavour and zesty herbal freshness (Corney & Barrow, 020 7265 2470).

Tesco Finest Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, £8.99
Apple-scented, fruity, crisp and well-balanced (Tesco).

Autentico Lambrusco Reggiano, £7.49
Real red Lambrusco – a great party fizz. Medium-dry with with sweet-and-sour plum and pomegranate fruit (Marks & Spencer).

Prestige Cava, £6.99/£5
Crisp, sweet apple flavours with a herbal freshness; dry but not too dry (Marks & Spencer, £5 when you buy 2)

Langlois Crémant de Loire, £11.99/£7.99
Stylish floral, spicy aromas and wild strawberry flavours; dry and medium-bodied (Majestic, £7.99 when you buy 2).

Vitteaut-Alberti Crémant de Bourgogne Rosé, £11.50
Almost too good for a party: seductively raspberry scented and flavoured; soft, dry and finely textured (Stone, Vine & Sun, 01962 712351).

Duval Leroy Fleur de Champagne, £12.99
Down from its usual £25.99, this delicate, crisp, floral champagne is £12.99 for the last week of November only. From December 3 to January 6, it will be £16.99 (Waitrose).

Jacquart Brut Champagne, £16.99
Lightly toasty, fruity and approachable; down from £23.99 until December 30 (Somerfield).

Veuve Monsigny Champagne, £9.99
Easygoing nutty, appley flavours; soft, but crisp. No one can be making any money out of this (Aldi).

Waitrose Vintage English Cider, £1.59 for 50cl
Top-quality, intensely-flavoured, powerful, dry cider from Herefordshire; 7.3% abv (Waitrose).

Applewood Cider, £1.69
Medium-dry, softly fruity oak-aged cider from the West Country - a collaborative effort by Dorset brewers Hall & Woodhouse and Somerset cider-makers Thatchers; 6% abv (Tesco and Sainsbury’s).

Asahi Super Dry, £3.98-£4.29 for 4 x 33cl
Fashionable Japanese brand brewed in Kent by Shepherd Neame. Ultra-refreshing, crisp and light-bodied, but not low alcohol (5% abv). Perfect with spicy canapes (Sainsbury’s; Tesco; Waitrose)

Triple Karmeliet, £1.79 for 33cl
Winner of three titles at this year’s World Beer Awards, including World’s Best Ale, this is an Abbey-style Flemish beer made from three grains (wheat, oats and barley); hence Triple. It has a fresh, nutty, apple and banana nose with toffee, cream, orange and ginger on the palate. And it’s a powerful 8.4% abv, but it tastes it, so people won’t knock it back too quickly.

Brakspear English Pale Ale, £1.49 for 50cl
Quintessential, crowd-pleasing English ale – full and rounded with smoky, hoppy, orange flavours and 4.5% abv (Morrisons and Booths).

Badger Golden Champion, £1.69 for 50cl
Full and fruity with an orange marmalade flavour; 5% abv (widely available in supermarkets).

SKYY Vodka, £9.89
Made from filtered, 100% pure California water and grain from the Midwest, distilled four times and put through a three-stage filtration - all with the aim of producing the purest possible vodka. You’ll get a hangover from anything if you drink too much, but this might lessen the pain (Waitrose, on offer at this price until December 2, then reverts to £14.79).

Sagatiba Cachaca, £14.49-£15.49
Caipirinha may seem the perfect summer drink, but don’t put it on hold the rest of they year: it’s an ideal fuss-free party cocktail. All you need are limes, sugar, ice and your cachaca (Tesco, Waitrose, Oddbins).

Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka, £15.99
Polish vodka with a distinctive herbal note. Put it in a pitcher with lots of ice and decent quality apple juice and you’ve got a tatanka (Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s).

2007 Asda Argentinian Torrontes, £4.12
Medium-bodied, flowery white with an outsize grapy, rose-petal perfume, a spicy, fruity palate and a sweet-lemon finish (Asda).

2007 La Dolomie Pinot Grigio, £3.99
Most sub-£5 pinot grigio has all the character of tap water, but this has proper flavour – lime, apple and minerals (Aldi; reverts to £4.99 after Christmas)

2007 Bushland Single Estate Chardonnay, reduced to £3.99 on Thursday
Nutty, oak-matured Australian chardonnay with fresh, bright fruit (Aldi; reverts to £4.99 after Christmas).

2007 Merlot Vin de Pays de la Cité de Carcassonne, Canat, £3.99
Soft blackcurranty fruit flavour and a clean dry finish (Sainsbury’s).

2007 Popolino Rosso, £4.29
Medium-bodied, fresh, supple Sicilian red with a scent of sweet cherries and witchhazel (Marks & Spencer).

2007 Côtes du Rhône, £4.49
Well-rounded young Rhône brimming with juicy, ripe, spiced-plum fruit (Marks & Spencer).

Mulberry Fair, £3.29 per litre
There are two flavours of these new mulberry juice drinks – mulberry and sanguinello orange and mulberry and limonera pear. They’re both delicious, so all you have to decide is whether you need perking up with orange or soothing with pear (Waitrose, Selfridges).

joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, December 14, 2008: Tawny Port - the unsung hero

Something to go with the stilton; something for the chocolate pudding, mince pies, panforte, stollen, nuts and figs; something to sip after dinner; a last-minute Christmas present; an unusual aperitif. Five different wines? No, just one: port. But not the usual. Instead of LBV (late bottled vintage), the default choice of the harrassed at Christmas, try an aged tawny (aged meaning matured, rather than elderly, and pronounced accordingly).

Aged tawny – labelled, ten, 20, 30 or very occasionally 40 years old - is the unsung hero of port in Britain. We think of port as dark red, rich, powerful and sweet, but tawny isn’t dark - it’s, er, tawny. And, although it’s as sweet and alcoholic as other styles, it’s lighter in body. The taste is different, too. Tawny is matured for years, sometimes decades, in wooden casks until it ends up with mellow flavours of dried fruit, toasted nuts, roasting coffee, spices and caramel.

Two other key differences are that tawny, unlike vintage port, has no sediment, so it doesn’t need decanting, and it should be served lightly chilled (an hour or so in the fridge depending on its temperature).

Taylors Ten Year Old Tawny Port, £18.99
Classic tawny with an enticing fillip of freshness (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Oddbins, Majestic).

Warre’s Otima 10, £10.99 for 50cl
Stylish, contemporary bottle for an equally polished tawny (Asda, Thresher, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose).

Noval Ten Year Old Tawny Port, £18.50
Textbook nutty, dried fruit flavours with a hint of chocolate (Fortnum & Mason, 0845 3001707).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, December 7, 2008: Ten Top Wines for Christmas

Wine is always a welcome gift, but even more so in the current climate - and you don’t have to spend a fortune to find something special with a story to tell. Better still, make sure you have some of these to pour at your own celebrations. Each and every one would be an asset over the festive period.

2007 Viognier, Christophe Pichon
£13.95, Vine Trail, 0117 921 1770
Even if you can afford the Rhône Valley’s top white wine, Condrieu at £20 upwards, I’d be tempted to give this Vin de Pays. You can always make it two bottles. It tastes of Condrieu – heady floral perfume, apricot flavour, silky texture - because it’s made from the same grape variety (viognier) grown on the the same granitic east-facing slopes, but just a bit further south. Give it to anyone who loves sensual white wine.

2006 Etienne Sauzet, La Tufera, Bourgogne Chardonnay
£13.80, Tanners, 01743 234500
One for devotees of fine white burgundy, especially Puligny-Montrachet, and for fans of new world chardonnay who want to see why there’s such a fuss about French wine. Sauzet is one of Puligny’s star producers and this comes from two parcels of old vines (age is good for vines) just beyond the Puligny-Montrachet boundaries; hence the simple Bourgogne designation. It’s rich, but elegant, nutty and mineral.

2007 Ken Forrester FMC Chenin Blanc, £16.99-£17.99
Tesco; Waitrose
This is a statement wine. It’s impossible to ignore, so don’t give it to someone whose staple is neutral pinot grigio, unless they’ve expressed a desire for a life change. It’s mouthfillingly rich, nutty and creamy, with flavours of apricot and cocoa, and it’s off-dry: the wine equivalent of a voluptuous, yet majestic blonde. The anorak-fact background is that it’s produced in Stellenbosch from chenin blanc – old vines and the ripest grapes - fermented and aged in French oak barrels.

1998 Alfred Gratien Millésime Champagne, £34.95
Berry Bros & Rudd, 0870 900 4300
If you can still afford Krug or Cristal, give, give, give. If you can’t, you’ll score brownie points with Alfred Gratien, an insider’s champagne from one of the discreetest of houses. This has honeyed crystallised-fruit flavours, hints of toast and steely acidity. If the recipient doesn’t feel there’s anything to celebrate at the moment, there’s no hurry; this will outlast any recession.

2004 Selvapiana Bucerchiale, Chianti Rufina
£20, selected Marks & Spencer
Selvapiana only keeps the wine from the Bucerchiale vineyard separate from the rest of the estate’s wine in the very best years, so that makes this special for a start. It has subtly spicy aromas and lovely, savoury cherry flavours. You could give it to someone who has a cellar, to keep it for up to 12 years, but maybe there’s someone deserving who would share it with you sooner.

2004 Château Lalande-Borie, Saint-Julien
£19.99, Majestic
Lalande-Borie is under the same ownership as the glittering Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, so this is a chance to savour some of the magic of a top Bordeaux at a more affordable price. Supple and cedary with sweet fruit and a velvet finish. Anyone would like the taste, but it’s the men (boyfriend, boss, father-in-law) who are going to be most impressed by the name and the thought of claret.

2006 Yering Station Shiraz Viognier, Yarra Valley
£10.99, Sainsbury’s, Majestic
Stylish, full-bodied Oz shiraz with 5 per cent viognier - à la Côte Rôtie - to give a lift to the perfume. It’s not aged in oak, so the purity of the fruit shows and there alre also touches of dark chocolate and spice. It’s obviously ideal for oak-phobes, as well as fans of shiraz, but you should also consider it if you’re trying to convert an unreconstructed French red drinker to Australia. And if you know anyone who always loses/forgets/breaks the corkscrew, this has a screwcap.

2006 Carinae Malbec Reserva, Mendoza, £8.95
Stone, Vine & Sun, 01962 712351
This comes wrapped in tissue paper as if hinting that it should be given as a gift. Who to? The name Carinae will appeal to astromomers, but that’s a bit limited, so let’s add meat-eaters (malbec goes particularly well with beef) and those who like a stylish-looking but not overdesigned bottle on the table. If the intended recipient is a Francophile, play up the French connections: malbec is the grape in Cahors and the consultant winemaker, Michel Rolland, is from Bordeaux. As for the wine, it’s full-bodied and oaky, but not hefty, with a ripe blackberry and black pepper character.

1995 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904
£25, or £20 when you buy 2 or more, Majestic
Rioja is one of the best known names and most popular red wines, but not everyone has drunk grand old Rioja. Treat someone; perhaps someone too young even to have been drinking when this was made 13 years ago. It’s a gran reserva (top category) from a benchmark traditional bodega and it’s full of autumnal sweetness, sandalwood and cigarbox flavours.

2005 Aurélien Verdet, Gevrey Chambertin
£23.75, A & B Vintners, 01892 724977
You want to make someone feel really special? Give them good red burgundy. You’re giing a gift to a wine fanatic? Good red burgundy from a grower they may not have come across. Aurélien Verdet’s Gevrey is fragrant with cherries and roses and has a palate that is both sweet and savoury, vibrant and pure. It’s delicious now (partrdge would be a good partner), but it will open out over the next four years. Make sure you’re around.

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, December 7, 2008: Dinner-party choices

How did I get the idea that wine was supposed to be a source of enjoyment and relaxation? Seventy per cent of people feel intimidated in supermarket wine aisles, 36 per cent worry that they will take an unfashionable bottle to a dinner party and 20 per cent always buy the same wine. If the findings of this research by Sainsbury’s are to be believed, a lot of people find choosing wine a nightmare.

Sainsbury’s solution is to categorise its 163 own-label wines, including the superior Taste the Difference range, in one of seven styles – crisp and delicate, rich and complex, light and fruity, etcetra – and to identify the bottles accordingly. This should appeal to customers who are comfortable displaying the Sainsbury’s name, but those who worry about taking the right bottle to a dinner party may not want to take a supermarket own-label.

There’s no infallible answer to the dinner party dilemna, but, provided you avoid the cheapest, you are unlikely to go far wrong with Chablis, pinot noir or Rioja. Alternatively, if you fancy an upmarket own-brand the Fortnum & Mason selection is impressive.

2004 Viña del Encino Rioja, £10.90
Polished modern Rioja with seductive spicy fruit (Fortnum & Mason, 0845 300 1707).

2006 Ra Nui Pinot Noir, £11.25
Exemplary New Zealand pinot: pure, silky, raspberry-scented (01962 712351).

2006 Domaine Pinson Chablis, £11.90
Classic Chablis - nutty, creamy and mineral (Vine Trail, 0117 921 1770).

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, November 30, 2008: Great Value Growers' Champagnes

There are people who can still afford luxury-label champagne - good for them – but most of the world is feeling the squeeze. Champagne sales are down in all the top markets (France, Britain, America, Japan) and although they are still rising in Russia, India and China, the quantities in these new markets are tiny. So the Champenois are looking pinched for the first time in years.

Somehow I doubt many of you will be feeling sorry for them. I imagine you care more about whether you can afford to drink champagne at all this Christmas. With £10, you will be able to buy a bottle from the big supermarkets, but I don’t recommend it. It’s likely to be thin, sharp and/or coarsely sweetened. Sparkling wine from Burgundy, the Loire or the new world is a better bet. At £16 upwards, however, you can afford fine champagne – not a grand name, but one made on a small scale by an individual grower and sold through an independent wine merchant. Look out for the words “grower’s champagne” in lists, and try the gems below.

Chartogne-Taillet Brut Champagne, £21.25
Delicately honeyed, lemony and biscuity. Very stylish (Vine Trail, 0117 921 1770).

Chauvet Brut Blanc de Noirs Champagne, £15.95
Supple and fruity with textured richness (Private Cellar, 01353 721 999; normal price £17.43)

Carlin Blanc de Blancs Champagne, £17.99
Buttery, biscuity, all-chardonnay, and technically from a small house rather than a grower (The Real Wine Co, 01753 885619).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, November 9, 2008: The Rise of Pinot Gris Down Under

Most Italian pinot grigio tastes of next to nothing – LDN (light, dry, neutral) in wine writers’ shorthand. Presumably that’s its virtue for the huge numbers of people who buy it week in week out in Britain. The surprising thing (apart from its popularity) is that, inherently, pinot grigio is not short on flavour and body. You only have to look at wines made from pinot gris - same grape - in Alsace. They’re honeyed and fruity with a nutty, spicy richness. They can also be sweet and labelled Vendange Tardive accordingly.

The difference between the two styles is partly geography, but a lot is down to choice: the number of grape bunches growers allow their vines to bear and when they decide to pick them. Big crops and early harvests give the timid-tasting big-sellers. Small yields and late harvests give full-on flavour, but a more niche market.

This has made it tricky for producers in the new world. They want to cash in on the fashion for Italian pinot grigio, but neutral-tasting wine goes against the grain. In the end, most stick to what they do best: flavour. Lots of it.

2008 The Ned Pinot Grigio, £9.99
Pink-tinged, medium-weight, with apple, peach, spice and a hint of sweetness; from New Zealand (Majestic, £7.99 when you buy 2; Waitrose).

2007 Tinja Pinot Gris, £9.75
Crisp, zesty pear, peach and orange flavours, from Orange, Australia (Lowe Wines,01389 830643, Vin du Van, 01233 758727, L'Art du Vin, 0131 555 6009, Provender Brown, 01738 587300).

2006 The Lane Single Vineyard Pinot Gris, £9.99
Rich, nutty, peachy with fine acidity; from the Adelaide Hills (Waitrose).

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, November 2, 2008: A Cure in Sight for Cape Reds?

There’s a flavour in South African red wines that I can’t stand; not in all of them, but in enough to make me approach Cape reds warily. It’s a flavour like burnt rubber or tar, often combined with leathery baked fruit and hard green notes, as if the grapes were over- and under-ripe at the same time. It’s no respecter of price or reputation – it goes from top to bottom – nor of grape variety .

If this was a personal fad, the problem would be mine. But others feel the same, although, puzzlingly, British wine writers appear to be more sensitive to it than commentators elsewhere. And many Cape wine producers don’t get it at all, which is one reason it remains a problem.

The other reason is that no one knows the cause. Ten leading winemakers, assembled in London by importer Richards Walford recently, came down on the side of faulty winemaking, but others think a vine virus is the culprit. Either way, the end could be in sight. For the first time serious research to identify it is underway at Stellenbosch University. Fingers crossed. Three Cape reds I highy recommend below.

2005 Rustenberg John X Merriman, £9.99-£11.99
Cabernet-merlot blend with succulent fruit and a fresh coffee note (Majestic, £9.99 when you buy 2; Waitrose; Stone, Vine & Sun, 01962 712351; Harrogate Fine Wine, 01423 522270).

2005 Ken Forrester 3 Halves, £10.99
Rich, spicy, Rhône-like blend of shiraz, grenache and mourvèdre (Waitrose).

2004 The Foundry Syrah, £11.99-£20
Top-notch, powerful but polished, peppery syrah (The VineKing, 01737 248833; Harrogate Fine Wine; Planet of the Grapes, 020 7405 4912; Hanging Ditch, 0161 832 8222).

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, October 26, 2008: Cheap Wine: the hidden and not so hidden costs

There are two theories about how wine drinkers react to a recession. One is that they buy more because they share a bottle at home instead of going out. The other – no prizes for guessing - is that they cut back on the grounds that wine is a luxury.

If you’d tasted some of the wines I’ve encountered at recent supermarket tastings, you might question the definition of luxury, but all the same it’s looking as if, currently, the former theory is more a case of wishful thinking on the part of wine sellers. The reality, for now, is that consumers are cutting down – buying cheaper or buying less.

The trouble with buying at the bottom end is that the cost of getting any wine on the shelves has risen sharply this year. Duty has jumped 14p a bottle to £1.46, the euro is punishingly strong, and packaging and transport costs have soared. There is also 17.5% vat to factor in, together with margins for the producer (if he’s lucky), retailer and perhaps middleman. We’re fortunate if, at under £4, the wine accounts for 50p. Even more fortunate if it’s drinkable.

2007 Asda Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, £2.98
Simple, soft and fresh with blackcurrant pastille flavours (Asda).

2007 Cuvée Pecheur, Vin de Pays du Comté Tolosan, £3.69
Crisp, light, grapy, grassy, off-dry white (Waitrose)

2007 Sainsbury’s Old Vines Tempranillo, £3.79
Medium-bodied Spanish red with spicy, plummy fruit and a clean dry finish.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, October 12, 2008: Shocking following for The Wine Gang

What do you really want to know about wine? I know it might seem late to ask, but I have discovered from a website I’ve started with four colleagues that it may not always be what I thought. We set it up because we each taste hundreds of wines a week at tastings that are not open to the public. We recommend a handful of the best or best value and, having done that, we file our notes and move on. What a waste.

So, now we publish an online monthly report, with reviews and scores out of 100, for 200 wines on sale in all kinds of retailers from supermarkets to posh merchants. And we don’t just cover the good and glorious, which is where one of the revelations comes in: there is an almost indecent following for our monthly shockers - the five wines that have most appalled us. We’ve also found that advice on food matching and how long wines can be aged is much appreciated. I’ll be bearing all this in mind here. Meanwhile, there’s a free trial to until the end of October.

2005 Montsant Finca l’Argata, Joan d’ Anguera, £12.95
Powerful, but polished Spanish red. Ideal with roasts, game, casseroles, anytime until 2015 (Tanners, 01743 234500).

2006 Bourgogne Blanc Les Setilles, O Leflaive, £11.79
Nutty, lemony, rounded. Drink with fish and creamy dishes in the next three years (Corney & Barrow, 020 7265 2470).

2007 Grenache Noir, £5.99
Spicy, ripe fruit, full and savoury. Try with spicy sausages, steak or red peppers. Drink in the next three years (Marks & Spencer).

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, October 5, 2008: Aldi and the supermarkets

If Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and his wife are now buying their wine as well as their groceries at Sainsbury’s, instead of getting Waitrose wines via Ocado, they will notice the change. Waitrose range vies with Marks & Spencer’s for quality, whereas Sainsbury’s seems to have lost its way.

Most of Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference wines are good, several are very good and across-the-board they are more consistent than Tesco’s Finest selection, but too many of the other wines are run-of-the-mill. In a world awash with new producers, why stick with tired old names? As for the 27 wines at under £4, shown at a recent tasting “to reflect the current financial climate”, I despair.

Perhaps the Cleggs would feel it was a step too far, but for cheap wine they would do better to go to the discounter Aldi (the nearest branch to Putney, Nick, is Old Kent Road). There are only 65 wines, compared with several hundred in the big supermarkets, and there’s nothing adventurous, but the quality-value ratio is impressive. Oh and, Nick, all the £4.99 wines will be £3.99 before Christmas; that should help.

2007 Vignes de St Pierre Sauvignon Blanc, £3.99
Crisp, bright sauvignon with juicy, grassy fruit (Aldi).

2003 Rioja Reserva, Ramon Lopez Murillo, £4.99
Soft and nutty with sweet red fruit and spicy oak (Aldi).

2007 Mâcon-Villages, Henri de Lorgères, £4.99
Nutty, fresh, delicately buttery and well-rounded (Aldi).

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, September 28, 2008: Real Men Drink Pink

If anyone still thinks rosé is only for the girls, think again. Real men not only drink pink, they’re getting into bed with it (loosely speaking). The new recreation of retiring sports stars, especially those with French blood, is to produce their own rosé.

David Ginola, former Newcastle United footballer, has launched Coste Brulade, a rosé from his native Provence. It’s not yet on the shelves in the UK but, unless it’s a silly price (curiously, nobody would even give me a guide-price), a supermarket seems sure to snap it up. The 2007, which won a silver medal in this year’s International Wine Challenge, is the prettiest of pale pinks with lovely, fresh, strawberry-scented fruit.

Another example is French Flair, a rosé from Fronton, north of Toulouse, which bears the signature and picture of recently retired French rugby international Thomas Castaignède. So far, it only seems to be on sale in France, but with Castaignède a familiar face on British television it may only be a matter of time before it comes here.

While we’re waiting, the drinks below should satisfy any male still wary of being seen drinking pink.

Stinger Organic Ale, £1.89-£1.99, 500ml
Developed with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and brewed with organic nettles. Fresh, soft with a hint of gingery spice; delicious (selected Budgen; Thresher;

2007 Monty’s French Red, £7.99
Meaty, herby, berry-flavoured red, biodynamically grown by wine writer turned vigneron and TV star Monty Waldin (Adnams, 01502 727222).

2005 Steak House Cabernet Sauvignon, £6.49
Butch-looking, but elegant, savoury, blueberry-flavoured Washington State red (on offer at the Co-op; reverts to £7.99 on October 5).

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, September 21, 2008: Sauvignon Gris - the New Blanc

Sauvignon gris sounds like a grape variety dreamed up in a marketing department to cash in on the fashions, especially among women, for both sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio (aka pinot gris). But no creativity has been necessary. The only thing new about sauvignon gris is the interest producers are taking in it, including making it as a wine in its own right (instead of merely blending it), and putting the name on labels. Previously it wasn’t thought worthy of a mention.

Not that we should exaggerate. Only a handful of wines labelled sauvignon gris (meaning they contain at least 85% of the variety) have reached UK shelves so far, but the trend has been set, so we shall see more – especially from Chile, but also from the Loire, Bordeaux and areas where growers are planting it for the first time.

Technically, it’s a pink-skinned variant of sauvignon blanc and the wines have an obvious family resemblance, but there are differences. Sauvignon gris is less aromatic, which means less pungent ‘green’ flavours (grass, gooseberries et al), and it tends to be fuller-bodied. There are two from Chile to try below.

2007 Secano Estate Sauvignon Gris, £6.99
Full and dry with spice, citrus and green fruit flavours (Marks & Spencer).

2007 Vina Leyda Sauvignon Gris, £9.49
Full-bodied, smoky and spicy with tangy green fruit (Oddbins).

2007 Calvet Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, £4.99
Light, grassy, grapefruity Bordeaux with 15% sauvignon gris, although the label doesn’t say so (Waitrose).

Monday, September 15, 2008

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, August 31, 2008: Food-friendly Fino

If there was a really refreshing wine to serve with shellfish, smoked fish, parma ham, chorizo, olives, salads, manchego, parmesan and almost anything else you might find at a good deli counter, surely people would be queuing up for it? All the more so if it wasn’t expensive. So, where are the queues for dry sherry?

There are some converts who know how good fino and manzanilla (the pale dry styles) are with food, as well as before it, but most wine drinkers don’t give them house-room all year. It’s partly because sherry per se has an image problem, but more because people don’t think of fino and manzanilla as wines like pinot grigio, sauvignon or chardonnay. Fair enough; they are different.

But not that different. Fino and manzanilla are bone dry with a savoury, far less fruity flavour than, say, chardonnay, and they are stronger, although, at 15% abv, not much stronger. Try the three below, always serving them well-chilled and in ordinary wine glasses. If you want a familiar name, Tio Pepe is always reliable (£8.79-£8.99, widely available), as is the newer Harveys Fino (£8.18, Morrisons).

La Gitana Manzanilla, £7.29-£7.49
Delicately salty, dry apple flavours. Cheap at the price (Tesco, Waitrose Sainsbury’s).

Valdespino Deliciosa Manzanilla, £12
Aptly named, fresh, nutty, savoury (Planet of the Grapes, 020 7405 4912).

Lustau Puerto Fino, £10.99
Smoky, tangy and nicely rounded (Philglas & Swiggot, 020 7924 4494).

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, August 24, 2008: Picnic Provisions

The severe view of picnic provisions, courtesy of a friend of mine, is that the wine should have enough flavour and guts to stand up to dilution by rain and the food should fit into a raincoat pocket. I wouldn’t go that far, but I take the point.

Picnic wine usually has to stand up to a bit of rough handling of some kind, whether traditional bank holiday downpours, soaring temperatures or a bumpy ride, so it’s a waste to pull out a precious or delicate bottle. Besides, picnic menus aren’t usually suitable for over-subtle wines. You are far more likely to be eating garlicky chicken, spicy salami and herby dips than you are dover sole. So go for wines with fruit, flavour and zing.

But even before you think about the taste, I suggest you commit yourself to screwcaps (or the smart glass stoppers that are beginning to appear on more expensive wines). It’s not just that you won’t have to fuss with a corkcrew; you will be spared the risk of a musty ‘corked’ wine when you are miles from the nearest replacement. Three screwcapped bottles below.

Canaletto Montepulciano di Abruzzo, £4.99
Full, soft red with cherry, smoke, spice and dark chocolate flavours (Sainsbury’s; also 25cl bottles, £2.09).

2007 Margaret River Semillon Sauvignon, £7.99
Zesty herbal and mineral flavours with a whiff of sweet smoke (Marks & Spencer).

2007 Bonterra Rosé, £9.99
Juicy, raspberryish Californian blend of sangiovese, zinfandel and grenache. Organic (Waitrose).

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, August 17, 2008: Corking-up the Leftovers

Remember when wine came only in 75cl bottles, three-litre boxes and a handful of half-bottles that had usually been hanging around too long? Those days are gone. What started with a few tentative Tetrapaks and plastic bottles has become an avalanche of alternative sizes, shapes and packaging materials in the last 18 months.

Some of the new formats sell on their environmental credentials, some on the convenience factor and some, such as Waitrose’s range of 50cl bottles under the Vin à Deux label, push the sensible drinking message - the thinking being that 75cl can be too much between two.

All this choice is welcome, but the message I’d like to push home is that if you don’t finish a bottle it doesn’t have to go to waste or into tomorrow’s casserole. An inch or two in the bottom of a bottle probably won’t keep until the next night, but, if there is a third or more left, stopper it and put it in the fridge. If it’s red, remember to take it out a couple of hours before you want it or, at a pinch, put it in barely tepid water.

2004 La Riada Limited Release Crianza, £9.99/£4.99
Nicely oaked Spanish red with supple cassis fruit. On offer at £4.99 until Tuesday (Wine Rack).

2004 Mas des Dames, Coteaux du Languedoc, £7.95
Full-bodied, smoky, spicy, ripe berry flavours; southern warmth and no oak (Berry Bros & Rudd, 0870 900 4300

2007 Reschke Fume Sauvignon Blanc, £10.99-£11.49
Fine, floral, grapefruity Coonawarra white with a hint of oak (Old School Wines, 01782 372888; The Wine Library, 0207 481 0415; £138 per case, H&H Bancroft).

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, August 10, 2008: Cool Reds

If you are drinking red wine today, you should probably put it in the fridge for at least 45 minutes first - not because we are in the middle of summer but because most red wines are drunk too warm all year. The old rule that red wines should be served at room temperature is one of the most treacherous pieces of wine lore, unless you happen to like your rooms at a penitential 16-18 C. A few big, young, tannic reds, especially those designed to be aged, may taste rounder and more supple at 18-20C, but the vast majority begin to lose their freshness and clarity of flavour at these temperatures. They will still be drinkable, but not as good as they could be or as the producer intended.

Beaujolais has always been appreciated lightly chilled, but most new world red wines at under £7 can be served in the same way – and many will be all the better for it - simply because they are made in a soft, fruity, more or less tannin-free style. And almost any pinot noir, whether £6 or £20, is delicious cool. Bottle, fridge, now.

2006 Asda Extra Special Beaujolais Villages, £4.98
Textbook Beaujolais – soft, juicy, peppery strawberry fruit (Asda).

2007 Casillero del Diablo Pinot Noir, £5.99
Great value Chilean pinot with sweet fruit and soft oak (Sainsbury’s).

2006 Maven Marlborough Pinot Noir, £9.19
Stylish NZ pinot with wild strawberry aroma and supple texture (selected Tesco).

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, August 3, 2008: Spitting Cristal

I know it’s vulgar to talk about money, but as I spat the 2002 Cristal Rosé into the elegant spittoons in Roederer’s tasting room I couldn’t help wondering how many pounds’ worth I was ejecting into Reims’ sewage system at £300-£545 a bottle (the price-span for the 2000 vintage; 2002 has yet to be shipped).

Spitting fine wine is all in a day’s work, of course, but some days are more painful than others. This was one. I spat out seven vintages of Cristal, four white and three pink. The white is cheaper (anything from about £170 to £238 for the 2000 vintage; more for older ones), but even so I reckon it was close to £100 down the drain - literally, not metaphorically.

Cristal sometimes hits the headlines for the wrong reasons – for example, the falling-out with Jay-Z over his spraying it round the room (allegedly) - but there is no question it’s superlative champagne. As it should be. If you can’t afford it (few can), note that all Louis Roederer champagnes are made by the same people in the same cellars and largely from the family’s own vineyards.

2002 Roederer Brut Vintage Rosé, £49.99-£63
Not Cristal, but one of the best rosé champagnes (Wimbledon Wine Cellars, 0208 540 9979; Vintage House, 020 7437 2592; Harvey Nichols, 020 7235 5000; Fortnum & Mason, 0845 300 1707).

2002 Roederer Brut Vintage, £49.99-£60
Rich brioche and candied citrus flavours (Wimbledon Wine Cellars, Fortnum & Mason, Vintage House, Berry Bros & Rudd, 0800 900 4300)

Quartet, Roederer Estate, £17.99-£19.99
Convincing champagne-lookalike made in California (Waitrose, Majestic).

Monday, August 4, 2008

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, July 27, 2008: In the pink

Rosé, once the poor relation of the wine world, has become the toast of it in less time than it takes to mature a bottle of fine red. Everybody everywhere is sipping it. The French now drink more rosé than white wine. In Britain one in every 10 bottles bought is pink - up from one in 20 four years ago. The Americans have discovered cult rosés (they would) – including Provence’s Château D’Esclans Garrus at £50 a bottle.

All over the world wineries are turning their hands to rosé to feed the demand, from Portugal’s Vinho Verde producers to Argentina’s malbec growers and all points in between. Even hulking Australians with bone-crushing handshakes unashamedly make and drink knicker-pink wine.

What is it about rosé? Simple: the glass of wine that used to mark you out as naff, tasteless or effeminate has become classless, ageless and sexless. You don’t need to know about wine to enjoy it, but at the same time there are bottles to satisfy connoisseurs. Twenty-year-olds who give other types of wine a miss make an enthusiastic exception for rosé - and their parents and grandparents drink it, too.

Put another way, rosé is relaxed. But that doesn’t mean it’s unsophisticated. Not any more. Rosé has come up in the world, both in quality and in variety. Admittedly, sweet, vapid California rosés still account for a significant chunk of the UK market, but the days when the choice was often limited to dry and overpriced (20th-century Provence and Tavel) or medium-sweet and sulphurous (old-style Anjou and Portuguese) are gone.

The styles made range from shocking pink, full-bodied and ebulliently fruity to ultra-pale, crisp and dry. Broadly, the new world veers to the former, the old world, especially France and epitomised by Provence, to the latter, but there is increasing crossover with every vintage. At Bordeaux châteaux, for example, where rosé is often made by draining juice from the vats of newly fermenting red wine, the resulting colour is often deep pink. The trend in parts of the new world is to make lighter, snappier, drier rosés because they go better with food. The great thing is to have the choice.

2007 Grand Milord Organic Rosé, £5.99
Medium-full, southern French Vin de Pays with spiced red-berry fruit and a satisying crisp finish (Marks & Spencer).

2007 Crow’s Landing Cabernet Shiraz Rosé, £4.25
Cheerful, cheap, off-dry Californian with bouncy, ripe, briary fruit (Co-op)

2007 Mas de la Rouvière Rosé, Bandol, £12.25
Classy rosé from Bandol in Provence; sweet cassis fruit with spicy, currant-leaf freshness (Yapp Bros, 01747 860423).

2007 Torres Viña Sol Rosé, £5.99
New from Spain. Full, ripe, cherry flavour with refreshing structure and finish (Booths).

2007 Domaine de la Grande Pallière Rosé, Côtes de Provence, £8.95
Organic, ultra pale, perfumed, fresh and delicious - but make sure you buy the 2007 (Nicolas).

2007 Sainsbury’s Cuvée Prestige Côtes du Rhône Rosé, £4.99
Medium-bodied, well-rounded, with sunny raspberry fruit (Sainsbury’s).

2007 Château d’Aqueria, Tavel, £9.99
Deep-coloured, full-bodied, strawberry-scented with spicy fruit (Berry Bros & Rudd, 0870 900 4300).

2007 Altosur Malbec Rosé, £6.99
Deep pink Argentine with vibrant cherry and blackcurrant flavours (Majestic).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, July 20, 2008: Whatever happened to Oddbins?

Going, going, gone: 131 Oddbins shops have closed since the end of 2005 and a dozen more are due for the chop; 31 have opened, leaving a total of 142, down from a high of 278. Whatever happened to Britain’s famous wine merchant chain, the favourite of a generation of wine drinkers?

In a word, takeover. Put in a few more words, Oddbins, which had long been unprofitable, was sold in 2001 to Castel, France’s biggest wine company. Since then, in a bid to turn the business round, Castel has converted 61 shops into its other chain, Nicolas, sold 70 and is revamping the survivers. If you’ve lost your local Oddbins, or it has altered its style, you now know why.

Crucially, Castel has also changed the way Oddbins’ wines are sourced, shedding a buyer or two en route. All French wines are now bought by Nicolas in Paris. This may sound sensible, but the effect has been depressing. The French wines shown at a recent tasting were overpriced, mostly mediocre and sometimes worse. Fortunately, the non-French wines are better, especially the special parcels which start arriving tomorrow.

2007 Red Hill Estate Pinot Grigio, £9.99
Australian take on pinot grigio: lively, appley, nutty and mineral (Oddbins).

2007 De Grendel Winifred, £9.59
Distinctive and delicious oak-aged Cape blend of chardonnay, semillon and viognier (Oddbins).

2007 Concha Y Toro Winemakers’ Lot Malbec, £6.89
Big, dark, Chilean red with cassis, spice and oak flavours (Oddbins).

“Castel is one of the world’s four biggest wine companies”
Anorak Fact: Constellation is the biggest, then Gallo. Castel was third, but Pernod Ricard is thought to have overtaken it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, July 13, 2008: The rise of Sauvignon Blanc

It’s a sign of the rise in popularity of sauvignon blanc that next month sees the first World Sauvignon Congress. Apparently, scientists and professionals involved with the variety all over the world will be attending. But they won’t be there just for a bit of back-patting. Although sales are booming, not least in the UK, the event aims to “enhance sauvignon’s prestige”, because, as the founders see it, sauvignon doesn’t get its due. They say it’s “often underestimated and is rarely ranked as high as certain red wines and chardonnay”.

I know what they mean. I was tasting with a top UK sommelier the other day and when we came to the sauvignons, he said, without pausing for breath, that like most of his peers he didn’t like the variety.

Sommeliers suffer from over-exposure to endless customers asking for Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and New Zealand sauvignons, as if there weren’t any other whites, but there is another reason sauvignon gets shortshrift from some pros. Unlike chardonnay et al, it rarely improves with age, so almost all should be drunk young. To me that’s one of the attractions.

2007 Dourthe No 1 Sauvignon Blanc, £5.66-£8.49
20th vintage of this consistently good, zesty white Bordeaux (Wine Rack, £5.66 when you buy 3; Waitrose, £6.99).

2007 Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc, £13
Best of both worlds: made in New Zealand by a Sancerre grower. Smoky gooseberry intensity; potential to age (Les Caves de Pyrene, 01483 554750).

2007 Iona Sauvignon Blanc, £9.99
Exceptionally pure fruit and minerality from the Cape (Waitrose).

“Cabernet sauvignon is an offspring of sauvignon blanc.”
Anorak Fact: DNA testing has shown that cabernet sauvignon resulted from sauvignon blanc crossing with cabernet franc.

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, July 6, 2008: English Wine

If you want cheap wine, look away now and don’t buy English. But if you want something crisp, light and reviving – still or sparkling – to drink as an aperitif, then English and Welsh should be on your radar; in fact, top of your list if you’re feeling even faintly patriotic.

I admit to having had mixed feelings about our home-grown wines (don’t call them British, by the way: British wine is cheap fortified stuff made from concentrate). There have always been admirable ones: never knowingly underpriced, but of international quality and distinctively English/Welsh in style - and nothing short of a triumph of will and skill over the UK climate, high taxes, land and labour costs. But sifting through the mediocre to find the worthwhile has been a bit of a lottery.

There are still poor wines, but quality across the board has been rising steadily. The big supermarkets have picked up on this, so you don’t need to live near a vineyard to collect something good this summer and the 33 English and Welsh wines distributed regionally in Waitrose stores are all available from

2006 Chapel Down Bacchus Reserve, £12.99
Delicious, tangy, floral, passionfruit flavoured white (Selfridges; the non Reserve is also good, Waitrose, £8.99).

2007 English White, £9,99
Fragrant, leafy, elderflower and grapefruit flavour. One of a good new trio (Marks & Spencer).

Taste the Difference English Sparkling Rosé, £17.99
Fresh, strawberry-scented, off-dry sparkling pink (Sainsbury’s).

“The bacchus grape is England’s answer to sauvignon”
Anorak Fact: Although it can taste like French sauvignon when grown in the UK, bacchus is a German variety

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, June 22, 2008: Summer Rosé

I thought I would wait for what passes for summer to update you on rosé and recommend some of my favourites, but now we’re here I realise it was pointless to hold back, because one of the most striking features of the surge in popularity of rosé is that it is no longer purely seasonal. We get through greater volumes in the summer - even when, like last year, there isn’t one to speak of - but most of us now drink pink the rest of the year too. No wonder sales are growing at 30% a year.

The original catalyst was the heatwave summer of 2003, but we’ve carried on, whatever the weather since, partly because rosé has shaken off its previously suspect image and partly because both choice and quality have soared. It’s the textbook delicious circle: we buy more, so producers and sellers try harder, so we… so producers etcetra. Not that the picture is all rosy. At least half the market is cheap sweet California brands which aren’t worth wasting words on (or money), but overall there’s plenty to celebrate.

2007 Clos d’Yvigne Bel Ami, Bergerac £7.99
Pure merlot rosé; paler than the 2006, but every bit as good (Majestic).

2007 Maby La Forcadiere, Tavel, £9.95
Full-bodied, stylish, spicy southern Rhone rosé (Yapp Bros, 01747 860423).

2007 Vinha da Urze Rosé, Douro £5.99
Fresh, spicy strawberry fruit. Portuguese, but a far cry from Mateus (selected Marks & Spencer).

“The only wine made in Tavel is rosé”
Anorak Fact: Tavel is the only appellation contrôlée (French quality wine area) where rosé alone is allowed to be produced.

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, June 15, 2008: Chile v the best of Bordeaux and Italy

If you are an ambitious producer in the new world, one of the best ways of attracting attention is to stage a blind-tasting pitting your wines against great names from the old world. You line up your wines with some of the finest from France, and perhaps a few top Italians, and get an A-team of international tasters to rank them, not knowing what they are. You have nothing to lose. If your wines perform well in this star-studded cast, their reputation is made. If they don’t, it’s no disaster: they are a work in progress.

The late Robert Mondavi was a master of the game and coincidentally, on the day he died last month, I was at just such a tasting in Zurich, held by the Chilean Eduardo Chadwick of Errazuriz. One of the 12 wines, Seña, was a Chadwick-Mondavi Chilean joint-production. It came tenth, which might have been disappointing had it not beaten Château Haut-Brion 2005 and Sassicaia 2004. The other five Chadwick Chileans triumphed, taking places two through to six, beaten only by a legendary Côte Rôtie, Guigal’s La Mouline 2004. I put my top Chadwick wines first and equal fourth.

2005 Errazuriz Don Maximiano, £22.95
Stylish cabernet-based Chilean. My top mark in the Zurich tasting (, 0845 6033717;, 0800 0720011, £133.39 for
6 bottles).

2005 Errazuriz La Cumbre, £19.99/£15.99
Rich, chocolate and cassis-scented shiraz. Second at Zurich and a gold medal in the International Wine Challenge (Majestic; £15.99 when you buy 2 or more).

2007 Taste the Difference Chilean Sauvignon, £6.99
Vivid herby, gooseberry fruit and a whiff of smoke (Sainsbury’s).

“Until 1994 Chile’s carmenère vines were labelled merlot”
Anorak Fact: A French vine specialist was the first to see that most of Chile’s so-called merlot was the substantially different carmenère variety.