Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, February 8, 2009: Pink fizz

I could be missing something, but Lanson’s claim that its new 20cl bottle of pink champagne is “the perfect size to share” seems extraordinary. I know no one wants to be seen flaunting money at present, but I would have thought that expecting 20cl - little more than quarter of a standard bottle – to stretch to two people was grounds for ending any relationship on the spot.

Size aside, it’s not bad in a fruity, easygoing style (£9.99, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Majestic), or £25.53 for a 75cl bottle, which I hardly need point out is a better deal (Tesco, at this price until February 14). But the point of high-profile brands is not value for money so much as buying a name. Less famous labels are cheaper. Two good value ones currently are De Castelnau Rosé (£16.99 instead of £26.99 until February 15, Co-op) and Carlin Rosé (£19.99, The Real Wine Company, 01753 885619).

If you’re happy to splash the cash or plastic, the rosés of Bollinger, Krug and Perrier Jouët Belle Epoque (the latter in its timelessly chic enamelled bottle) will show that you mean business (£59-£200). Good luck to you.

Blason de Bourgogne Rosé, £9.99
Great value, strawberry-scented fizz from Burgundy (Waitrose).

Devaux Cuvée Rosée Champagne, £26.99-£30
Lively and seductuvely fruity (Frank Stainton, 01539 731886;; Villeneuve Wines, 01721 729922; Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350) [can omit Liberty ]

Perrier Jouët Blason Champagne Rosé,
Stylish, sophisticated, deserves more stockists. No relation to the Bourgogne above (Majestic).

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, January 25, 2009: Vodka - good news or bad?

With sales up a third in the five years to 2007, vodka has overtaken Scotch whisky as Britain’s favourite spirit. So, is that good news or bad news? It’s certainly awkward for the government - and not just because Scotch whisky is our own industry. Vodka has become the drink of the young - indeed the far too young - of binge drinking and the ladette culture (if ever there was an oxymoron it’s the coupling of those two words). In fact, it’s everything about alcohol that the government is (ineffectively) trying to deal with. Clearly it can’t look on the vodka boom with equanimity. But then again, how far can it afford not to, with duty and vat revenue from sales of 8 million cases?

It’s not even unequivocally good news for producers. Vodka’s main selling-point is that it’s a neutral alcoholic base – the very reason it suits unsophisticated palates intent on getting slaughtered. Producers who want to distance themselves usually try to add quality/value by harping on about purity and smoothness, but after that the ascent up the price ladder is largely about presentation and packaging; style more than substance.

Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka, £15.99
Polish vodka with an aromatic herbal note (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose).

Snow Leopard Vodka, £30
Trendy Polish vodka made from spelt. Expensive, but 15% of profits go to conservation charities (Waitrose).

Wyborowa, £14.99-£15.99
Crisp with a hint of sweetness and spice. Ever reliable Polish rye vodka (Oddbins and supermarkets).

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, February 1, 2009: Two money-saving ideas

As the sale season limps to a close, I have a couple of alternative money-saving ideas. Paying to go on a wine course might not sound like an economy measure, but learning how to taste and assess quality properly will save you money in the long run (even if you develop more expensive tastes). Michael Schuster runs excellent classes - beginners and fine wine - at Bordeaux Index in London and I’ve discovered you can offset the costs by signing up to wash the glasses at £10 an hour after each session (

Idea number two: sign up as a ‘wine angel’ at, a new business which founder Rowan Gormley likens to a combination of farmers’ market and Facebook. Wine angels pre-pay £5 a month towards a case of their chosen winemaker’s wines and get 33 per cent off the normal price. To kick off, they can also get six bottles of the winemaker’s wines for just £15.82 (the cost of duty and delivery). This strikes me as a bit more transparent than all the sham half-price offers that run almost continuously on big Australian and American brands.

2008 Raats Original Chenin Blanc, £5.66/£8.49
Delicious, dry, sappy South African white (; £5.66 is the ‘wine angel’ price).

Warre’s Warrior Special Reserve Port, £8.99
Great value, richly fruity ruby which Michael Schuster shows on his beginners’ wine course (Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Booths).

2007 Domaine Haut-Lirou, Pic Saint-Loup, £6.99/£8.99
Stylish syrah-based French red with spicy, smoky, sweet fruit (Majestic; £6.99 if you buy two or more).

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, January 18, 2009: Tips for tackling the sales

The shelves are alive with the sound of slashing wine prices, but there’s a problem with wine sales: unlike the jeans you can try on, you rarely get to taste the wine before you shell out, unless there’s time to buy a bottle to try at home first.

Still, there are things you can watch for. Top of the list are tired wines. Rosés don’t improve with keeping and the vast majority of whites don’t either. As a rough guide, the cheaper the white wine, the less likely it is to improve – and that’s a broadly useful guide for reds, too. Prosecco and Cava should also be drunk young; if you think they’ve been hanging about, pass by.

Know your grape varieties: the unfairly stigmatised riesling ages well - both southern hemisphere and European - whereas sauvignon, pinot grigio and viognier fade quickly. Among reds, pinot noir is short-lived, especially new world pinot; cabernet sauvignon and syrah/shiraz last longer. And remember that southern hemisphere wines are about six months older than those from the same year in Europe and America. As for ‘mystery cases’, if the wines were really good, the sellers would identify them.

2008 Finest Tapiwey Sauvignon Blanc, £3.99
Great half-price offer on this zesty, gooseberry-scented Chilean sauvignon (Tesco; normally £7.99).

2007 La Sabrosita Old Vine Garnacha, £4.39
Big, spicy, juicy Spanish red. Good value even at its usual prcie of £5.99 (Marks & Spencer)

2006 Anjou Le Clos des Rouliers, Leroy, £14.82
Superb dry white Loire to drink now or lay down. Price held for this month only (Vine Trail, 0117 921 1770).