Friday, September 5, 2014

New wine retailers and other wine trends

The wine world has been a tough place in the last six years, not least on the UK retail side. The casualty list of high-profile wine merchants and off-licence chains is familiar enough not to name them again. And yet, every month at, we find ourselves reviewing a wine from a retailer we haven’t previously listed, often more than one wine and one retailer. Sometimes they’re businesses that existed before August 2008, but often they’re ones that have been established since. The internet has, of course, facilitated many of the start-ups, but the new wine merchants aren’t all virtual. The number and quality of independent and independently minded shops opening physical doors for the first time is impressive, and good news for anyone with any interest in wine. 
It hardly needs saying that the retail scene is not all that has been transformed in the last six years. The wines we drink in the UK have changed. This doesn’t pass for market analysis, but here are ten trends that strike me:
  • Pinot Grigio’s grip on the market is as tenacious as the wine itself is feeble, but other Italian white grapes are making inroads – Fiano, Falanghina, Grechetto, Greco, Vermentino et al. Bravo.
  • Sauvignon Blanc continues to gain ground, becoming the other variety of choice for the mass market where once it was Chardonnay.
  • Oaked Sauvignon Blanc: niche, but growing. Perhaps it means that white Bordeaux’s day is about to come, especially oaked Bordeaux. I hope so. I’ve had some crackers this year – affordable ones.
  • Godello has given Albariño a run for its money: The Wine Gang reviewed two in 2008, one each in 2009 and 2010, seven in 2011, eight in 2012 and 16 in 2013. But so far, only six this year...
  • Australian Pinot Noir: yes! No question, Australia has belatedly been getting there. Chile, too, and so close to the Pacific that the vines are nearly paddling.
  • Alcohol: some welcome retrenchment from high levels in regions where it’s unnecessary and/or unsuitable. As an aside, Australian producers are now allowed to put the exact alcohol level on labels if they wish (e.g., 12.7%, instead of having to round it up to 13.0% or down to 12.5%).
  • Malbec: on consumers’ lips in the same way as Sauvignon Blanc; consequently producers beyond Argentina and Cahors are getting in on the act – in Chile, Languedoc, California, South Africa, New Zealand.
  • Prosecco continues to push Cava out of the limelight, but it isn’t Italy’s only sparkling wine. Sales of Champagne-like Franciacorta are a pin-prick, but growing.
  • Fortified wines: still declining overall, but carving a niche with food. The capital’s clutch of sherry bars was joined for six months this year by a pop-up port restaurant (Churchill’s Port House). Time for a Madeira bistrô?
  • Orange wines: made by producers of so-called natural wines from white grapes macerated and fermented with skins and pips, like red wines, especially in Georgia, Slovenia and Collio, Italy.
This is a shortened version of my editorial in The Wine Gang's September report.

Wine and food matching: promiscuity rules

With a nod to nostalgia I thought about starting this editorial: Once upon time there was a supermarket chain called Safeway. I decided not to because a) originality can be so unsettling, b) this is not about Safeway, c) it’s not even about supermarkets. You’re welcome to breathe a sigh of relief at c), especially as I’m about to go off at a complete tangent before I’ve even started – that’s the luxury of a blog. Tangent: one of my favourite, as far as I know unrehearsed, supermarket put-downs was by investigative food journalist Joanna Blythman when she was on stage picking up an award for her writing. As it was presented, she was asked: ‘What would you do about supermarkets?’ ‘Ban them,’ she said without pausing for breath. It brought the house down.  
Where was I? Yes, Safeway. Food. Wine and food matching. During the 1990s, Safeway, which was then the third or fourth largest UK supermarket chain (Asda overtook it in the second half of the ‘90s), decided to revamp its wine back-labels to make them more useful. One of the key changes was to the recommended food accompaniments. Instead of the bland catch-alls along the lines of, ‘this wines goes with fish, white meat, red meat, cheese, puddings…’, Safeway introduced more detailed and specific recommendations. So a label might suggest moules marinières or chicken tikka makhani, or lamb kleftiko. Unfortunately, far from finding this helpful, many customers were apparently put off. They didn’t buy a wine if they weren’t having one of the dishes recommended. Boeuf bourguignon or lamb and date tagine not on the weekend menu? Inner voice tells them to put the wine back on the shelf. Safeway backtracked and returned to blander suggestions.
You might have expected, with the increasing interest since then in food, eating out, cookery books, TV cooking programmes, that wine label suggestions would have moved on. A quick look at a few labels suggests nothing much has changed. These are typical: ‘lamb, pasta or casserole’; ‘a great summer aperitif, also good with Mediterranean cuisine’; ‘barbecues, picnics, all types of Asian food’; ‘rich, meaty stews’. You could swap the labels round and it wouldn’t make much difference.
As I’ve said before, matching wine and food is something that many people, even those knowledgeable about wine, aren’t confident about. And, as I've said before, it’s always worth remembering that you’re not seeking the one and only perfect match. Most foods and dishes will go with more than one style of wine. Choose according to budget, occasion, what you feel like. Dishes are promiscuous (or polygamous, or something): they can enjoy several partners, even at the same time.  
This is a shortened version of my editorial in The Wine Gang's April report

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Rioja bargain

2012 Mas de Victor Rioja Graciano, Spain
This is down £3 to £5.99 until 29 April and is well worth snapping up, not least because it's an opportunity to try one of Rioja's minority grapes on its own, the aromatic Graciano. It's essentially a young wine, but a few months in French barrels have added some nutty oak and a bit of depth and polish to the spicy, sweet berry fruit. Gentle tannins and some appetising acidity bring it to a neat finish. 13.5%. 88/100.
£5.99, Sainsbury's

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The bee's knees

If this tasting note looks suspiciously familiar, it probably is. When I wrote it up as one of my wines of the year, I put the wrong vintage. Mea culpa. This is it with the correct vintage and I'm very happy to be revisiting it.
Domaine of the Bee Les Genoux 2011, Côtes Catalanes, France
A field blend of old-vine Grenache Noir, Carignan and Grenache Gris. Perfumed, sweet, supple, majestic, delightfully precise and fresh (despite 15% alcohol). Utterly seductive.
Order direct from 

Monday, January 27, 2014

The glorious Mansengs

Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng and their support cast of Petit Courbu and Arrufiac, in Pacherenc du Vic Bihl and Saint-Mont, south west France.
These notes and recommendations are prompted by a tasting I gave last week to some MW students and for whom the quality and styles of the Manseng-based whites, dry and sweet, were a revelation. As one of them tweeted afterwards: “still thinking about the Mansengs. Such an underrated duo. Time to stock my cupboards before the world finds out”. My sentiments exactly. I fell for the two Mansengs in the late 1980s when I came across Jurançon and haven’t looked back.

Gros and Petit Manseng 
The Mansengs are aromatic, thick-skinned, high-acid varieties. Neither has large berries but those of Gros Manseng are larger – hence the name – as are the bunches themselves. Gros Manseng is also higher yielding and there’s more of it planted (almost three times as much in 2009, according to Wine Grapes). Petit Manseng has thicker skins and produces more intensely flavoured, concentrated wines which have greater finesse and dry on the vines more readily in the autumn to produce, intensely sweet, luscious wines with thrilling acidity.

Gros Manseng: aromatic, intensely fruity; quince, tropical fruit, grapefruit; sometimes spice; medium-high to high acidity. 
Petit Manseng: aromatic, intensely fruity; distinguished from Gros Manseng by apricot, or sometimes white peach, and sometimes floral aromas; quince, citrus; high acidity. 
Petit Courbu: citrus, floral notes, ripe fruit; high acidity. 
Arrufiac: delicate aromas, suppleness; can have a subtle citrus-pith bitterness.

Dry (sec) Pacherenc du Vic Bilh
Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl is the white wine, both dry and sweet, of the Madiran red wine region, although much less white wine is produced. Traditionally the dry wine is Gros Manseng-dominated, with Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu supporting it and very occasionally a little Arrufiac, but Petit Manseng-dominated wines have gained ground. The wines from Château Laffitte-Teston and Château Aydie, below, both contain more Petit Manseng than Gros.

Château Laffitte-Teston Ericka 201, £12.15, The Sampler
Domaine Capmartin 2012, £12.50 Great Western Wine
Château Aydie d’Odé Aydie 2011 (available elsewhere in Europe;

Sweet (moelleux) Pacherenc du Vic Bilh
Predominantly Petit Manseng, usually with some Gros Manseng and sometimes some Petit Courbu, but sometimes 100% Petit Manseng,

Saint-Albert 2011 (Cave de Crouseille), £13.95 for 50cl, Corney & Barrow
Folie de Roi 2010 (Cave de Crouseille, 64350 Crouseilles; 
Château Arricau-Bordes 2010 (Le Chai, 64350 Arricau Bordes; email
Château Aydie 2010 (
Domaine Laougué, Tradition 2011 (

Saint Mont blanc
All Saint-Mont white wine is dry and is a blend of three of the following four varieties: Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Petit Courbu and Arrufiac. (and all white wine producers must have 20% each of the last three in their vineyards). In practice most blends are predominantly Gros Manseng with some Petit Courbu and Arrufiac, a variety which has made a comeback from near extinction in the 1980s. Less white wine is produced than either red or rosé – a shame. Almost all wine is produced by the co-operative Producteurs Plaimont which pretty well created the appellation in 1981 (a VDQS elevated to PDO in 2011).

Le Passé Authentique 2010, 2011 (Producteurs Plaimont), £9.99, Waitrose,
Le Faite 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011,  (Producteurs Plaimont), £17.00–£18.95,  Weavers of Nottingham, Portland Wine, Bordeaux & Beyond
L’Empreinte de Saint Mont 2010 (Producteurs Plaimont), £13.29, Adnams Cellar & Kitchen
Les Vignes Retrouvées 2010 (Producteurs Plaimont), £10.99, The Smiling Grape Company
Les Hauts de Bergelle blanc 2011 (Producteurs Plaimont), £7.99, Majestic 
Saint-Mont 2011, £7.99, Marks & Spencer

postscript: Petit courbu

Château Montus makes a dry Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh from 100% petit courbu, vintages of I’ve liked very much in the past, but for which I don’t have a sufficiently recent tasting note (Highbury Vintners and Hennings list the 2010 (£25­–£26.50).