Pre-Christmas Wine Buying Guide

This is hardly OoL material, with this site tending to be purely political, nothing else and yet there are sufficient readers who do not come to my site that it would be a pity if they missed out on Wiggia’s wine guide.

He doesn’t do them often but you’re speaking of an expert here. Thus this is an exclusive and may well affect your choice of bulk buying for 2015, should you be in Britain or even outside. [JH]

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I wanted to do a small recommended selection for the Christmas period based on my tastings this year, and I will indeed suggest a few of the better wines I came across, though not all will find favour with the readers for, as always, personal taste trumps people’s preferences, and so it should.

It will be a list of buys I am not doing this time as most would be a repeat of last year and this year has been somewhat different.

Before that I would like to explain a little about what I have changed this year in my thinking and drinking of wine, and how the retail trade is changing and in the main not for the better.

This year I have cut back on my daily drinking, for two reasons. The first is that the usual suspects in wine when it comes to a daily tipple are getting harder to find at that price point and there is a universal sameness creeping into them as they all go after a “world” market. The big conglomerates have been buying up wineries in the new world especially and there is a tendency to put their stamp on those wines, which is not to say there is a quality drop, just a lack of variety.

Even amongst fine wines there is a tendency to follow the crowd – Robert Parker whom I spoke of in an earlier piece has had an effect there. As much as he has done well shaking up the wine world, his style preference has influenced many chateaus into making their wines in a style that he will approve of and by that, get good reviews and sales.

Another influence in the same way is the ‘flying winemaker’ out of Aus, they have made many below par European wineries into a success by following their style and using their skill, the consultant oenologist has had a similar effect on many fine wines, their skill in being able to make decent or drinkable wine in poor years. It’s been a boon for the wineries but by their nature, a style of sorts will emerge from that one person and some have a huge clientele.

What is being forgotten is that wine is a drink, the whole point of wines from the world’s premier wine area Bordeaux is that the wines were made to be drunk with food, a criteria that has stood the test of time. Many of today’s wines don’t sit happily with food, the pleasing of the American market, despite it being smaller than the European, has led to many wines being made with that fruit bomb approach to appeal to Robert Parker and that market.

This has also been a factor with many Australian wines – huge fruit and high alcohol content – these are not food wines but we are seeing more and more of them being sold.

A good example in the ten pound bracket is the wines of MAYU from Chile. Last year, a gold medal and trophy was won by one of their wines, I purchased a couple of bottles and quite frankly was initially amazed by the smell, taste and length, remaring to everyone about this wine, but the truth was when the second bottle was opened, it became obvious that however you approached this wine it could never be drunk with food, it simply overpowered everything.

Recently, I gave the same winery another go with a Shiraz they did, it was identical in style, initially wow followed by a simple “too much”. In the end, all you want above all the hyperbole associated with wine is a good drink, as the doyen of all wine tasters Michael Broadbent would say, and to that end I have changed my buying this year, less is more, well more expensive.

What I did this year was almost a return to roots, a lot more of European wines have been purchased than in recent years, certainly not to the exclusion of the ‘new world’ but a more balanced approach to buying that has inclined, at the cheaper end, to favour the new world in recent years.

With white wines, I have purchased German Rieslings. Sadly, anyone wanting these will still have to go to a specialist wine merchant who deals in them, such as Howard Ripley or Loebs. This is not a plug, it is a fact of life.

What you get though for around ten pounds a bottle for a Kabinett wine is something you can purchase from a top winery like J J Prum and many others. These wineries are on a par with any white burgundy maker in quality and entry level wines like Kabinett are unbeatable value in white wine quality.

For those who want to try Reisling of that quality without going to a specialist, there is one available at Waitrose, a Brauneberger Juffer- Sonnenuhr Auslese. At just under £14, this is made by Fritz Haag, one of the top German estates and is a bargain at that price, the vintage has changed on this but there hasn’t been a bad year lately in the Moselle, so you are safe.

Sauvignon Blanc is the white wine choice of most at this moment in time and NZ is the go-to country for most buyers.

My opinion is that SB from NZ, like their Pinot Noir, has really plummeted in quality at the lower end. There was a time time when the mention of NZ and SB was guaranteed to provide a decent bottle, the race to provide at supermarket prices has largely changed all that and whilst the odd bargain emerges you have to spend well over a tenner to get the real thing now and that doesn’t include Cloudy Bay for reasons I have explained in the past.

Many of the better NZ SBs are also very pungent and strong tasting, making them again not good food wines unless it is something that needs counterbalancing,

All that of course brings me back to Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire, an area that not many years ago I avoided like the plague, as the quality had gone down so much with a few exceptions.

But is has, as an area, pulled itself up by its boot laces, being northerly it has always been at the mercy of the weather vagaries and many years the wines were simply awful. This has changed more by attitude to wine making than by the weather and the resultant Touraine SBs and Pouilly Fumes and Sancerres are Sauvignon Blanc as we remember, good thirst quenchers on hot days and again good with food.

Anything but Chardonnay may sound like a “chav” clarion call but the over use of the grape did it no favours, as did not the overuse of oak in its making, but it is still one of the world’s great grape varieties and with careful selection, there are some good cheaper bottles out there. This is an area the new world still has the edge in my opinion over the old.

Australia and Chile make some very good Chardonnays at reasonable prices, whilst you can find some good entry level French ones, though the prices tend to hang on the coat tails of Burgundy, expensive for what they are.

One exception I found at M&S was a Macon Villages at a tenner, 100% Chardonnay and another good food wine.

With the other white grapes, I have not at the cheaper end come across anything outstanding – Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer Chenin Blanc all make great white wines but not cheap ones, an exception being Brancott the NZ wineries, PG that is being discounted despite awards, as no one knows what it is. If you can find it buy it.

Viognier is another great grape in the right hands that is slowly making its mark, but again I have not had a cheaper one worth jumping up and down over and so it is with the plethora of other white grapes. Try them, some might surprise you and delight but because of lack of popularity, there are not many of the good ones for sale.

One that I can recommend is from Jean–Luc Colombo, Cote du Rhone, La Redonne that also has the Rosanne grape in the mix, Waitrose stock it but I have seen it elsewhere.

In reds I am still waiting for that holy grail of a decently priced Pinot Noir to emerge and despite tasting some very good cheaper ones from Chile over the last couple of years, the numbers have dwindled, simply not selling ? Almost without exception, this grape, to be worth drinking, will cost you money wherever it comes from, we can hope.

However if you can seek them out, Which tasted a selection of reds that included three cheap Pinot Noirs, all from the Americas, two from Chile which rather backs up my views on cheaper NZ PNs as not being at the races.

The best new Pinot Noir in the under a tenner bracket that I have tasted was Valdivieso Grand Reserva from Chile. And another from the USA at Majestic at £8.99 is Edna Valley. This area is normally a lot more expensive, so this is well worth a try.

I still think that Argentinian Malbecs provide great quality and value at the moment, Tesco of course, in their austerity drive, have halved their offering online from 36 to 18. Fortunately, others still have good ranges to sell and many of these Malbecs are made in a European style with muted fruit that makes them more ameniable to food

A couple I can recommend from Majestic, both relatively new, are P15 and Hey Malbec, strange titles but who cares? It’s whats in the bottle that counts.

Santa Rita make a very good Carmenere and the Waitrose own label is similar, the Chilean ‘national’ grape is still not a grape you see much of, which is a shame as the small number on sale and all at decent prices have been good.

Not much has changed in the rest of the world regarding reds, Australia still makes an endless array of good wines at the cheaper end even if they do tend to all taste the same regardless of grape, go up a notch and it is a different class. Any of the wines from Two Hands are are worth buying , high class wine making with all the grape varieties at around the twenty pound mark, Christmas treat ?, and Rolf Binders Cabernet/ Merlot at a tenner is another very good wine from a very good winemaker, seek that one out,

The USA is still either Gallo who are not all cheap and cheerful, or serious money, no in between, Italy seems to be pushing some pretty rubbish wines in supermarkets, all to a price, yet the good value and reliable Nero D’Avolas and Negroamaros that were giving us such good value and tasty reds are diminishing on the shelves.

In fact Italy at the moment in supermarkets is not doing a very good job of selling the best it can offer, once again a huge range of grape varieties and they give us the mundane examples.

Easily the best Italian wines at supermarket level come from Waitrose Cellar including a good Felsina Chianti, a decent Verdicchio and even a Barolo that is not out of reach price wise and drinkable, otherwise you have to go to a specialist as no one else comes close, other than a couple from M&S mentioned later.

Spain is still selling “award winning” – god knows how – Rioja reservas that bear no relation to the description ? Yet there are some good ones, Beronas and the ever reliable CVNE plus those from La Rioja Alta, and Ribera del Duero is still the more reliable buy, with Majestic selling a good one in Finca Resalso 2013.

They also sell a couple of good Grenache (Garnacha) from old vines that are worth a try and a couple of good cheapies from Monastrell, Portugal, which is at last getting its act together and its native grapes like Touriga Nacional are good and being seen more, even Dao wines, once pretty bland, are worth a look.

With France, it isn’t that the wines are not there, the range geographically and in grape choice is enormous, it is what is being sold. When the cheaper Bordeaux wines and Burgundy were found out some years ago, i.e. they were not worth the money and indeed were often appalling, other areas such as the Languedoc were plundered by the buyers looking for good wines at a fair price and they found them.

But most of these seem to have disappeared, why I know not, and have been replaced with the likes of wines from Cahors and Provence. This can only be a price thing as not many are worth buying.

A couple of southern France reliable standbys are available at Waitrose in Chateau Maris Vielles Vignes Minervois and Gerard Betrams Minervois, not new but reliable.

For myself, I am always digging out new wines to try wherever they come from in the world. Even Eastern Europe is slowly starting to export their improved wines, no longer cheap Bulgarian reds but some decent drinks from Slovenia, Hungary etc are all worth a try and Brazil and Uruguay, Mexico are all in the mix.

Back in Bordeaux, not all wines are out of reach, certainly if it is for a special occasion, Ch Latour may well be, yet the likes of Chasse – Spleen and Tour de By, Labergorce Zede, Carrone Ste Gemme are all consistently punching above their weight and are in many cases better than those in classifications above them, we are talking the 12 to 25 pound bracket, not a lot of money for more serious wines, and good with food !, It is an area I have invested in this year.

More Rhone wines are appearing and so they should, reliable, good quality and some very good larger producers such as Chappoutier and Guigal who also make some of the best and most expensive wines, as Syrah is king here in the grape stakes some wines can be on the heavy side for certain tastes but there is no denying the consistent quality.

Once again what I have spoken of are wines and areas that I have drunk this year, not that you can drink an area, though my wife would disagree in my case !

Some wines, Roses, I just don’t have enough contact with so don’t comment and Champagne and its equivalents are sampled sparsely so the same again as with Port and Sherry, though again the wife No 1 could do a piece on Sherry, now that is her forte. She rarely drinks anything else, and delights in Finos, Manzanillas, Palo Cortados and dry versions of the sweeter Oloroso’s etc.

I rarely get the chance to sample them, as I am told ‘you are supposed to sip them’ not pour them down your throat, as she most delicately tells me before taking the bottle away ! Though I must admit, with the equivalent of Tapas, there is nothing that comes close as an accompaniment.

Going back to Riesling, I have been slowly drinking some of my older wines, good Rieslings, well kept, keep as long if not longer than any other grape, especially those in the higher sugar bands Spatlese and Auslese and above.

Some I have had for twenty five years and are still superb, deeper yellow in colour and slightly more unctuous but just as good in their way as a few years ago, I did not realise how many I had of these, they were my first love in wine and I have purchased the odd case over the years but they have never been consumed on a regular basis, time for change ! Otherwise they will see me out.

The buying of wine, for all the reasons given in pieces about the supermarket domination and their respective trading problems, is starting to make a difference to the wine shelves. The Tesco debacle is self explanatory, but having taken the lion’s share of the wine market, the desire to outdo one another has been replaced with the assurance there is no way back for the independents.

This has led to the change in staff, the getting rid of the Masters of Wine they were all so proud to display heading their respective buying teams, and indeed whom they poached from one another in the early days of growth.

If this trend continues for the wine lover or any one interested in wine, it is going to make the buying process boring for a start and difficult unless you are one of those who reaches for the cheapest discounted wine of the week and doesn’t care what it is.

I have said before Sainsbury’s has become moribund, very sad as they were one of the early pioneers in supermarket wines and helped raise the quality level, Tescos seem intent on joining them. Asda have never really bothered that much and Morrisons ditto. Despite “winning” the supermarket of the year in wine they hardly have an original, to them, wine on their list ?

Lidl and Aldi, whilst having the odd bargain (Lidl have two wines worth a punt, a Reuilly Fiefs des Comeryas SB and a very good at £6.99 Minervois Domaine de L’Estagnol), so all is not lost ! are otherwise instantly forgettable and that leaves the odd Co Op where the manager has the buying say like the one we had a while back or Waitrose and M&S, both of whom have not changed much and do offer something a bit more challenging, plus some finer wines.

M&S actually buck the trend in Italian wines by having a couple of good examples, Rennato Rattis Nebbiolo Langhe as near as you can get to a Barolo without spending a fortune and a really nice Chianti Classico Reserva, Castello della Paneretta.

Outside of those, there really is, as far as high streets go, only Majestic who many thought would decline after the Naked Wines merger but so far are carrying on as before, strong in some areas, weaker in others. They still give you somewhere to go that is a more pleasurable buying experience.

The Wine Society is a very good source for all wines, yes you pay a £40 membership fee to join this mutual but at the moment £20 comes back to you for your first order so it is not expensive and the range is vast, with many exclusives.

I have never been a member, as deemed it unnecessary, now I have changed my mind, they give another string to the bow when looking for those unusual wines at good prices, plus their Society wines are generally very good value.

Otherwise it is the specialists who are mostly online. If you know what you are doing, it is the best way to buy wine, as everything is available somewhere if you look hard enough.

For those who buy the odd bottle, it is not looking so good.