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 www.waitrose.com/wine.

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 (winedirect.co.uk, 0845 6033717; everywine.co.uk, 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.