For OoL readers – best pre-Christmas wine buys

Speaking with Julia about this, we thought we might go outside the OoL brief pre-Christmas for readers who buy wine in and are looking at the below £15 mark.

Wiggia is a non-snobby wine buff with an eye to what people would like to try and can afford and thus we think this a valuable guide. He consumes a huge variety of these, so it is in mellow mood he recommends this or that or advises you to avoid this supermarket offering.

Anyway, here it is – feel free to copy and take.

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This follows on from the previous post – Early thoughts on Christmas wines.

I was going to write a piece on Grenache and Reisling wines at the end of this year as promised at the beginning of 2014.

The reason for that not happening is quite simple – the limited amounts of straight Grenache wines available.  Most are blended with other grapes, and for Riesling, the fact that it has fallen even further out of favour and single bottles are almost impossible to source, the only way to buy Riesling of any quality is by the case from specialist importers, so a review of that would be meaningless to the vast majority of wine drinkers.

So I thought a survey of what is more generally available with Christmas in mind would be a more useful approach.

All the wines discussed here are under a £15 ceiling I imposed for this piece, at Christmas most of us push the boat out a bit so I did not think that was being too upmarket and most of my recommendations are below that, in most cases well below.

All of these wines I have sampled within the last eighteen months so I am only speaking about that which I know about and of course personal preference comes into play, as with anything else.

Almost the only company that I do not have any knowledge of other than their catalogue is the Wine Society, for no other reason than it costs £40 to join and for me as I buy from various sources it is one company I have not bothered with as I have found no need.

That is not knocking them as their catalogue is comprehensive and interesting and extensive in most areas, and if you were a member you could certainly get most of your requirements from them and many are exclusive.

For someone starting out in wine the Society is a very sensible one base solution.

Just a point on award winning wines – to enter these competitions you have to pay, this favours the big supermarkets as the entry fee is about £100 a wine, most of the medals awarded are little more than an OK pass and as an example, Tesco won very few gold medals this year in the biggest competition but they did put in the competition all of their “Finest” range, hence a skewed look to their medal winning wines on the shelf.

This of course is done by all supermarkets and there is a seeming preponderance of own label Champagne and Sherry with gold medals.  And this is because those categories are not well supported by the producers themselves.

You must also remember that tasting, even by professionals is hard going when confronted with the sheer number of wines in these competitions.  Yes, they do split them into teams etc to share the load and then cross reference at a later stage, but when confronted with this amount it is the stand out wines that will be noticed more than the subtle ones.

There is also the problem of wineries putting in batches of wine specially selected for competitions that will not be found in the bottle you buy, this is always being denied by producers and retailers and is truthfully not that big a problem, but it does happen.

One other point,- the sheer volume that supermarkets require when a wine is popular makes quality control difficult.

There is no doubt in my mind some smaller (relative) producers could never have the capacity to produce the amount seen on shelves, there have been in my mind several cases of winning wines that have produced a huge demand that have become not the wine that won the award, the growers have had to import wine or use inferior wine from the vintage to maintain the supply.

That, sadly, is a fact, as in a previous piece I did about the gold medal winning Sainsburys Champagne where that did actually happen and was revealed in the press. I recently purchased two bottles of a Rioja that had won a major award, the two bottles were so different as to be unrecognisable , not from being a faulty wine but from two different sources, so do not take all wine awards as the be all and end all.

In many ways ,whilst the medal system has merit, the sheer number of competitions is creating some confusion as to their value, you are getting wines entered in all three of the major UK ones and coming out with three totally different results, hardly a ringing endorsement for the system, so keep an open mind in this area.

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Reds

I will start with reds, varying from the soft of Pinot Noir and Merlot to the more robust wines of Cabernet Sauvignon etc.

As I have said before ,Pinot Noir (the grape of Burgundy) is as difficult to get right as anything in the wine world , so cheap Pinots are hard to find, but Chile has a better stab at it than most, at least the cheap ones taste of the grape.

At the cheaper end, Cono Sur do two Bicicleta is a bargain and a Reserva Especial plus there is Santa Ritas Winemakers Lot widely available and all bargains. M&S do a very good Argentinian Altos del Condor and from NZ the Ara Pathway PN and Brancotts Estate Terraces showed well but as I have said before many of the NZ Pinots in the cheaper category were thin and lacked fruit.

If you want those countries’ best,  you are going to have to pay more. France, despite being the home to the most expensive Burgundies, also has some good cheaper versions and those from the likes of Louis Jadot and Joseph Drouhin are always reliable.

Merlot is mostly blended but straight Merlot such as the bargain award winning Casillero del Diablo from Chile is available, as is also from Chile the Marques de Casa Concha. Barefoot Merlot from the states is another good cheapie for party time.

Malbecs from Argentina have become very popular recently with good reason, I have sampled over forty different ones in the last eighteen months and few have disappointed.

The two best sources for these are Tesco Direct and Majestic, Tescos Trivento, Golden Reserve, the standard version is no longer as good with the new vintage, Terrazas, Kaiken Terroir and Reserva, Tahuan, Arte de Argento and from Majestic, Catena, Lunta, Ben Marco, Benegas Bosca are all front runners on quality and value and will not disappoint.

There is also a very good Trophy winning Malbec from Chile by Mayu, don’t miss this available in Majestic and elsewhere.

France, the Rhone and Australia are home to the majority of the world’s greatest Syrah or Shiraz wines and there are some outstanding wines from both at under £15,.

Though straight Shiraz is mostly Australian, Jim Barry Lodge Hill, Kangarilla Road, The Hedonist Tim Adams Protege, Wirra Wirra, St Hallets Gamekeepers are all great wines at under the stated price.

Syrah blends from the Rhone are endless and I have only tried a few but I can recommend Chapoutiers Petite Ruche Crozes Hermitage, also from Crozes, Jean – Luc Colombos Les Gravieres, Famille Perrin Ventoux (from Laithwaites), and Chateauneuf du Pape “Cuvee des Antiques” and almost anything by Guigal can be relied on, Tesco have a Crozes – Hermitage Grand Reserve that is very good, but most Chateau Neufs and the Cote Rotie.

Hermitage wines are in another price category.

Grenache, as I said at the start, is limited in straight form, Spain and Aus provide most examples and I found one great example in Majestic, El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa, and the Aussie Yulumba old vines is also worth a look. Most Grenache is blended (as in the Rhone and Aus) with other grapes.

Rioja is a great source of good value aged wines, with a caveat, many are way past there sell by date so just being old does not make a great wine.

2008 and ’09 were good vintages and there are many to savor , ’04 or ’05 were better years but not readily available and need care in selection.

I will just give a few of the more obvious ones – the 2008 Luganilla Reserva, the Reserva of Berberana of the same year, Selleccion Numerada 5 2010 from Laithwaites, and Beronia Dos Maderas Reserva are all very drinkable.

I only tried a couple of Portugese wines in this period and in both cases I had faulty wines so I can’t comment on them and Italy has disappointed me, a country whose wines I know well seems to be catering for the bottom shelf of supermarkets to a large degree which is a shame, but I did find a couple that fit the bill.

Lava Benevantano Aglianico makes a pleasant change from Chianti, Laithwaites Pillastro Primitivo is still after many years doing its bit to uphold the south, and Majestic have a Gold medal winning (rare now at the lower end) Surani Costarossa Primitivo di Manduria that is a steal, apart from those it means going above the £15 limit to recommend or I have not come across anything of value.

Just to prove I’m not a wine snob, Aldi have A Tempranillo Toro Loco at 3.79 ! If you need a red just to fill guest glasses en masse this has to be the bargain wine out there.

I have deliberately left Bordeaux out of this as the only wines from that region I have drunk have all been above the ceiling price and the area is a minefield below that figure, there are just so many available of hugely varying quality. But I will list a few at up to £25 that if you want to taste what good Bordeaux is all about will give you an insight, they are all generally available with a little effort and stick to the ’09 and ’10 vintages.

. Ch Chasse Spleen
. Ch Capbern – Gasqueton
. Caronne Ste- Gemme
. Lalande Borie
. Sociando – Mallet (recommended by Jancis Robinson) whom I rate highly as a critic.
. Labat
. Senejac
. Le Boscq

These are all Cru Bourgeois wines, many from sites alongside more illustrious names. The care that goes into making these wines is in many cases equal to cru class wines and they are a lot less to buy.

This may change as I will try some of these next year to see if they are worth the hype an interesting ploy by Lidl ,http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2014/sep/02/lidl-bargain-bordeaux-claret-discount-fine-wines

Just a couple of odds, Rustenbergs RM Nicholson from Stellenbosch is nice and the Higgovale Heights from Tesco was a big and pleasant surprise.

And also from Tesco at this moment on a very good double offer are Mondavis Private Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, difficult to fault at that price, very good straight fruity Cab Sav and ideal with the chicken if you want a less powerful red.

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Whites

When it comes to white wine, it is generally not as popular at Christmas, simply as it is looked upon as a summer drink by many, but of course white wine goes well with poultry and Christmas is the end of the line for much in the poultry world.

I found and purchased at Majestic a superb wine to go with turkey, goose or any of the richer meats, a Gewurztraminer from the Alsace by Trimbach one of the top wineries there.  They also have a great NZ version of the same grape the Saint Clair Pioneer Block,this is a slightly spicy sweet wine without going over the top and cuts through the fattiness of richer meats at the top end of the price range but great wine.

Some Rieslings in the auslese category do the same job, but as I said are difficult to find though Waitrose have one in the price bracket Dr Loosen Urziger Wurtzgarten (spice garden) Auslese, good producer.

And another alternative for the same job is Sauvignon Gris, thought to be a parent /clone/forerunner to Sauvignon Blanc but fuller and richer and certainly good with chicken, still quite rare but two examples are readily available one from M&S, Secano Estate Pinot Gris and from Tesco, Brancott Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Gris though I can’t vouch for the latter.

Good white Burgundy (Chardonnay) also does the job but most falls outside the price bracket, and Pinot Gris from Alsace almost all are good and the reserve wines in good years like ’09 ’10 from the likes of Hugel, Trimbach, Beyer, Kuentz, Zindt Humbrecht are all worth seeking out, and outside the specialists the Wine Society does well with.

Salmon, another Christmas favorite, is best with a good white Burgundy, but some of the above are well worth a try and many will have a decent red Bordeaux with salmon that is hot.

The permutations are endless and the chart with the Christmas wines will help you choose.

The two most popular white wines outside of Chardonnay are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Both have suffered in my view from their popularity and many of the cheaper ones on sale are only a shadow of the real thing.

If you want something from those grapes for Christmas steer clear of the cheapies many are plain horrible and you would be better served with a glass of water, I find it sad that NZ that made its name in wine with quality SB should go downmarket as it has with this grape.

Good examples do exist as long as you don’t get pulled in with price as the most important factor, of the cheaper ones.

Villa Maria Private Bin still is a reliable SB and a good example of the grape, Ara Pathaway has justly won awards, Brancott Estate B, not there standard version, is also very good, Villa Maria , again with their Taylors Pass version and Jackson Estate Grey Ghost is just over the price limit but I have included it, Saint Clair Pioneer Block is very grassy gooseberry version and on offer at Majestic at the moment that brings it under my price ceiling.

Split Rock SB from Laithwaites is another excellent bottle, plus one of the increasingly good ones from Chile Cono Sur Reserva Especial Sauvignon Blanc at a tenner this is as good as they get for that price band, the cheaper ones from Chile are worth a try for party fare, most are typical of the grape and great value Santa Rita, Concha y Toro spring to mind.

And a very good French Sancerre from M&S Les Ruettes gives a European slant on the grape that many still prefer.

Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris, leaving aside the Alsace versions which are a different animal, are mainly from Italy and increasingly from NZ, most of the Italian ones are in my opinion rubbish, the country that made the grape popular has gone down and down the market with cheap anodyne versions of the grape, there are still some better ones such as Il Papavero from Laithwaites, one of the few cheapies worth drinking, M&S do a decent one La Prendina, St Michael – Eppan from Waitrose is a better one from the “home” of PG the Alto Addige.

From NZ, Black Cottage PG from Marlborough is very good as is Waimea Estate both from Majestic, are both good examples of the grape, there are probably more out there in the sea of mediocrity that is PG but I have not pursued them.

Chardonnay has suffered a bit from the Chav attachment but that is hardly the fault of the grape having a name that Essex has taken to its heart !

White Burgundy is for the most way above the £15 imposition I have applied so we turn to Aus and elsewhere for some in that bracket.

Kangarilla Road Chardonnay ad the (just over ) Crittenden Estate Chardonnay fro Majestic stand out as does Wolf Blass Silver Label Chardonnay and Robert Oakleys one from the Margaret River both Tesco, and elsewhere.

Chile gives us Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay (widely available) and the one from Montes Alpha.

Chatel Buis Montagny from Waitrose is also in the price bracket, many of the cheaper Chilean ones are again good party wines.

There are of course a myriad of grape varieties outside the mainstream that will provide a pleasant change in drinking habits.

The Australian Semillons is a specialty of theirs, Torrontes from Argentina, Pedro Xminez (a grape normally associated with sherry) and Albarino from Spain, Gruner Veltliner from Austria are always good quality, and amongst the endless grape varieties from Italy Greco di Tuffo and Cattarato both have good versions available, and whilst there are good version of many of the others, finding them is not easy and reverting to specialist sellers is necessary,

Picpoul from southern France is a grape finding approval and the few on sale are good.

The listing would be a lot longer but I have only mentioned wines that I have drunk and a few sampled, to do anything else would be speculation and the recommendation of others, not what this piece is about.

All wine is subjective, all our tastes are different sometimes by quite a margin so no one can presume that because x says something is wonderful you will like it, but for what it is worth I hope this helps those who have scant knowledge of wine and need some basic help in deciding what to purchase.

I could have quite easily spoken about wines above the self imposed figure, but I don’t think that would have appealed to many so there was little point if no one would be tempted to buy them.

Literature

When I started to appreciate and buy wine, there were hardly any books or publications on the subject, now there hundreds.

They seem to appear almost weekly, but the ones by Hugh Johnson, Oz Clarke, Jancis Robinson will tell you all you need to know if you want to read up on the subject without getting bogged down in specialist, what can only be called manuals.

Myself, I have never stopped learning, the constant change in the vintages that vary from country to country worldwide, with the constant arrival of new grape varieties from unlikely sources means I am forever trying something new.

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t but mostly it is for me one of lives pleasures.

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6 comments for “For OoL readers – best pre-Christmas wine buys

  1. MTG
    November 12, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    Most folk are conditioned to the ‘wise spend’ of >£10/bottle but finding a really enjoyable wine is less to do with price than the result of constant subjective trial. A good wine is one you enjoy and it won’t break the bank to explore the odd gems to be found on Aldi shelves.

    • wiggia
      November 13, 2014 at 3:40 pm

      MTG, you are quite correct in what you say and I hope where I mentioned likewise it was taken in,There is some merit in the £10 or whatever “wise spend” re the duty content versus wine cost content but that can also be taken to some point as being producers spin regards the cheaper wines.
      It is all about what you enjoy, but it should not stop you exploring far to many people find one wine they like and stick with it when for little effort could almost certainly find a better one.
      Good example, tried last week and went back for more today, Tesco( yes I know they are out of favour) have Marques de Carano Reserva 2008 which with there current 25% of four bottles comes in at 3.75 and its good, they are out there. 😉

      • MTG
        November 13, 2014 at 9:24 pm

        Tomorrow I will buy and try Tesco’s Marques de Carano Reserva 2008.

        • MTG
          November 14, 2014 at 10:09 am

          Tesco Huddersfield has never stocked this wine. The range is limited in this Yorkshire backwater, to a 2012 rosé.

  2. Voice of Reason
    November 12, 2014 at 11:39 pm

    Just reading this in the morning encouraged me to buy a cheap Riesling on the way home.

  3. November 13, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    Good to see.

Comments are closed.