Monday, 19 March 2018

Two Top Buys from Tesco

As much as I enjoy shopping for my wines at Tesco, it does seem to have gotten more taxing of late. When I first started properly 'getting into' the good stuff, I used to look forward with anticipation at the chance to browse the wine aisles at the supermarket behemoth, as you could always count on finding something to pique your interest and often at a very fair price to boot. Unfortunately, due primarily (I think) to the competition from the German discounters, the wine department at Tesco has taken a bit of a hit, and consequently many of the bottles that used to grab my attention have disappeared from the shelves, to be replaced with either ubiquitous brands or own-label wines.

I don't wish for this to sound like a diatribe against Tesco, and certainly some brilliant wines of theirs come to mind when I think of my drinking history: the sleek and elegant Primarius Oregon Pinot Noir; the delightful Côtes Catalanes Grenache; the supremely good Finest own-label 2014 Sancerre; plus a disgracefully cheap bottle of Krug Champagne which was inexplicably de-listed! I also appreciate that  Tesco has bigger proverbial fish to fry than appealing to my tastes, but I do wish efforts could be made to bring back some more diversity to the range, as well as keeping the offering consistent across the country.

Happily, in recent months Tesco seems to have redoubled its efforts to improve it's own label 'Finest' range, which has always proved a source of well-made, good value wines. Perchance, I was shopping at one of Tesco's smaller 'Metro' outlets in Berkshire when I stumbled across a couple of these wines that caught my eye: the Tesco Finest Argentina Malbec 2016 and the Tesco Finest Chianti Classico Riserva 2009. The prevailing offer at the time allowed any purchase of two Finest wines for £12, and I don't have the sort of moral fortitude necessary to turn down good Argie Malbec and nine year old Chianti at six quid a pop. So I didn't, and I was very pleased indeed!

Tesco Finest Argentina Malbec 2016, Mendoza

As much of a Francophile as I am, it is undeniable that the French have been miles behind their Argentinian counterparts when it comes to Malbec. Instead of producing the tannic, rustic, unbalanced examples of old, Argentina's vintners have become experts in producing the sort of fruity, soft styles of Malbec that have proven so popular in the UK. Thankfully the French are now beginning to respond, but in my view it will be decades - if at all - before Argentina is knocked off the Malbec top spot. The reason behind Argentina's success with Malbec is its army of dedicated, knowledgeable and often young winegrowers, like the good people at Bodegas Catena Zapata who are behind Tesco's example. Lead by fourth generation winemaker Laura Catena, the bodega produces some of Argentina's highest scored Malbecs as well as some of the country's most premium, but their expertise is such that they can also produce delightfully appealing wines at this lower price point.

In the glass, the wine is reassuringly purple and bright, with notes of ripe black fruit, black pepper and violet on the bouquet. There's also a touch of oak spice too, courtesy of the older barrels used to age the wine. This oak maturation also lends a lovely softness to the body and tannin of this wine, which adds to the impression of smoothness. Having said this, the wine is actually quite dainty and feminine in style, without ever being too acidic. At only 13% alcohol, this is a Malbec which you can quite happily sip without food (as I did), but medium cheeses and roast lamb would also be a delight.

Tesco Finest Chianti Classico Riserva 2009, Tuscany

A popular household staple since the 1970s, Chianti is a familiar sight for UK wine lovers. Because of this increasing popularity, the Chianti producing zone was greatly enlarged to encompass growing regions which did not merit the name, and the designation thus became less and less meaningful. The area where the best of the region's wine can be found - in common with many other Italian regions - was given the Classico designation, and this is where today's proper Chianti originates. (It is, I know, a constant bugbear of Italian wine producers and lovers that the basic Chianti appellation is allowed the higher level DOCG classification, when it really doesn't deserve to do so). Nonetheless, thankfully Tesco have selected a Classico wine for their Finest label, as well as one that has the additional ageing to warrant the Riserva tag.

On first taste of this wine, I was unimpressed. However, after coming back to it the following day and ensuring it was up to temperature, I realised I couldn't have been more wrong. A lovely, limpid sort of ruby colour, the wine manages to conjure up all the classic flavours of the Sangiovese grape: black cherry, plum, blanched almond and prune. There's also an interesting cooked character to the fruit (strawberry jam, stewed plum), typical of the hot 2009 growing season in Tuscany. The palate displays typical high acidity and tannin, both components that make Chianti such a superb candidate for the dinner table. This is a wine with plenty of potential to continue developing in bottle over the next three years, but for me that optimal balance of ripe fruit and tertiary development characteristics demands the wine be drunk now. Superb stuff.

These two wines are perfect examples, then, of what supermarkets can bring to the UK wine scene when at their best: delicious wines from reliable producers that can be bought with confidence at the same time as stocking up on groceries. Whats more, both the Malbec and Chianti can be had at the same price as a pint in most pubs. Thanks to these two delightful wines, I now have renewed confidence in the ability of Tesco's head honchos to pay proper attention to their wine range. I hope my next visit to the wine aisles of a Tesco will prove to be just as fruitful.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

60 Second Wine Reviews: Lagrave-Martillac 2015

As a lover of all things Bordeaux, it rather puzzles me why the wines of the southerly Graves region are relatively hard to come by in the UK, when compared to their Médoc and Libournais counterparts. All the key factors which make Pauillac, Pomerol et al. successful on these shores seem to be in place. For starters, the wines are the classic Bordelais blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the former of which does particularly well on the rich veins of gravelly (graves) soils. The climate is slightly warmer than the rest of Bordeaux, meaning that the riper, plusher styles of wine so popular in the UK are found more readily in Graves, and with less vintage variation to boot. There's even an official classification in play of the region's best estates, which should please the 1855 anoraks. Yet, still the area struggles to gain traction in the UK. Why?

In all honesty, I'm not sure. Certainly, one factor that cannot be ignored is the difference in output between Graves and the Médoc. In terms of acreage, both regions are comparable; however Graves produces only half as much wine as its more northerly sibling. This is most likely due to the urban sprawl affecting Graves: whereas the Médoc is a rural, sparsely populated area, Graves rubs shoulders with the city of Bordeaux itself, competing for space with heavy industry, infrastructure and real estate. In fact, the estate which I'm reviewing here - Château Latour-Martillac - is enclaved almost entirely by the commune of Martillac, whose residents populate the same gravelly soils as the vines.

Anyway, I digress. Put simply, the Lagrave-Martillac 2015 is lovely, and is exactly the sort of wine that would do very nicely on the shelves of UK outlets. Lagrave-Martillac is the second wine of the aforementioned Latour-Martillac, a classified property in the premium Pessac-Léognan subregion, and it provided exactly the sort of drinking experience one would hope for from a great vintage like 2015. The nose is classically Bordeaux: blackcurrant, bramble and plum fruits caress the senses - all fresh and well-defined - with a pleasing note of graphite and some vanilla oak too (after aeration). The palate is very well balanced, with the structural components all hitting the sweet spot of my Goldilocks range ('not too acidic, not too alcoholic, just right!'). The tannins, will quite grippy now, should soften with age, allowing the wine to gain complexity over a five year period. I'd happily drink sans food, but equally a Sunday roast would do very nicely indeed.

Tom's Rating: Oz Clarke once described Pessac reds as "occupying a useful halfway house between the sternness of the Médoc and the mellow lushness of St Emilion". I dare you to disagree after trying this lovely 2015 example.

Available at: Lay & Wheeler, £15 (i.b.)  

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Christmas Wine Round-Up

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all (edit: both) my readers! I trust your holidays were fun-filled, over-indulgent and filled with great wines. I'm always keen to hear what bottles fellow wine lovers reach for at this time of year - be it classic or quirky, ruinously expensive or top value plonk - so do let me know what you drank in the comments section below. In the meantime, here's a run down of some of the drinks I enjoyed over the festive period. Here's to good health, and to great drinking in 2018!

Mumm Brut 2006, Champagne

Due to its deliciously light and dainty house style (and, admittedly, its historic association with Formula 1) Mumm has always been my favourite Champagne house. I snapped up a case from online retailer Ocado when it was on offer at £30 a bottle a couple of years ago, but for a wine of this quality I'd happily pay half as much again. Served at cellar temperature with a breakfast of bacon, brie and cranberry baguettes, it was a stunning wine to kick off the Christmas Day festivities. Notes of peach, honey and hazelnut dance merrily on the palate, with a toasty undertone and clean, crisp finish. Marvellous stuff!

Available at: Ocado, £40

Catena Alta Chardonnay 2015, Mendoza

It seems a bit clichéd to drink oaked Chardonnay with Christmas dinner, but I'm yet to find an alternative that's consistently as delicious. I've done the St-Aubins and Pernand-Vergelesses of this world, so I thought I'd opt for something a touch different this year, with a stunning Chardonnay from Argentina's finest, the Catena family. Now run by fourth-generation winemaker Laura Catena, the Estate's wines - most notably their Malbec - remain at the forefront of Argentine viticulture. Made from a blend of two of Catena's high altitude vineyards, the 2015 Chardonnay is a vanilla-laden, butterscotch-y delight - yet with an undercurrent of acidity to keep everything in balance. Does it have the complexity of some of Burgundy's finest? Not quite, but then at £25 a bottle, it doesn't have the price tag either!

Available at: Majestic Wine, £25

Chateau La Tour Blanche 2010, Sauternes

I'm a bit of a fiend for a good sticky wine, and - like with most wine styles - I find that France does it best. With the 21st century obsession towards clean eating and healthy lifestyles, sugar-laden dessert wines like Sauternes have fallen out of favour. Whilst not great news for the chateaux, this is nevertheless very welcome to wine lovers, who can seek out great examples for much less than what they should command. La Tour Blanche is always a very consistent performer in Bordeaux, and thoroughly deserving of its 1st growth status, sitting just below Yquem. This was certainly reflected in the quality of the wine - notes of key lime pie, pineapple and honey washed over the palate in waves of flavour. With fresh but not bracing acidity, La Tour Blanche '10 is a wine that would taste supremely good in a decade or two's time. But do I regret drinking it in its infancy? Not a chance!

Available at: various, £20/37.5cl

Taylor's Late Bottled Vintage 2009, Port

Is it really Christmastime if you've not cracked open a bottle of Port? I always like to have a bottle of this British-inspired Portuguese classic on hand to offer guests throughout December - its rich, warming, spicy sweetness seemingly warming the whole house on cold winter nights. What's more, Port won't break the bank - very good older vintages can be had for much less than you'd think, but even more wallet-friendly styles like this LBV from Taylor's are superb to share among your friends and family. I'm always taken with Taylor's range as I find their Ports to be a little less sweet than most, which I find highlights the rich, concentrated black fruit and savoury spice notes that much better. The 2009 LBV was enjoyed alongside a range of foods, including but not limited to pannetone, blue cheese and crackers, Christmas pud and tub after tub of Cadbury's Heroes. I'd highly recommend it with all.

Available at: various, £15

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

60 Second Wine Reviews: Cune Barrel-Fermented Rioja Blanco 2016

To the occasional wine drinker, finding out that white Rioja exists can come as something of a shock. It's an entirely forgivable reaction: of the 250 million litres of wine produced in the region each year, around 85% of it is red - and much of this finds its way into the UK market. Given our affinity, then, for the mellow, oak-influenced reds of this famed Northern Spanish wine region, why don't its whites get more of a look in?

One possible reason is the bad reputation that dogs Rioja's white wines: while the reds and their constituent grape varieties (predominately Tempranillo and Garnacha) marry well with extended periods of aging in barrel, the whites have not always been as comfortable bedfellows. In a recent Decanter article on the region's whites, Sarah Jane Evans MW quoted a 2007 piece in The Guardian, where wine expert Victoria Moore commented: "Most styles of white Rioja are certainly an acquired taste. To some, a mouthful of white Rioja is about as welcome as a bite of balsa wood impregnated with castor oil".

Fortunately, due to advances in vinification technology and consumer demand for fresher, leaner wines, such balsa and engine oil-flavoured bottles are largely a thing of the past. One worthy midweek example is the Cune Barrel-Fermented Rioja Blanco 2016, from one of the region's highest profile bodegas. The barrel fermentation of the wine allows for better oak integration that mere aging alone, and the relatively short 4 months' subsequent resting allows for a better balance between fruit and wood. A pale golden colour in glass, on the nose the wine is reminiscent of boiled toffees and vanilla, which intermingle well with banana and melon flavours. The palate is pleasingly rounded yet with enough acidity to prevent cloying, although I struggled to perceive the same interplay of fruit and oak as I did on the nose. For me, the fruit felt a little muddled and obscured by the wood-derived notes. Nevertheless, subtlety rather than expressiveness is arguably the wine's forte, and it certainly proved a very good companion to a hearty wild mushroom risotto.

Tom's Rating: A well-made gastronomic white Rioja from a powerhouse producer. Perhaps playing it too safe stylistically, though?

Available at: Co-op, £9

Monday, 17 July 2017

60 Second Wine Reviews: Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2015

Seeing the name 'Guigal' on a bottle of wine is a reassuring sight for consumers. It's akin to a guarantee of authenticity; a mark of high standards. Much the same as if you'd bought your foodstuffs from Waitrose, or your car from a Mercedes dealership: the consumer is buying an expectation of quality as much as they are the product itself. Comparisons can be drawn in the wine world too: Latour and Jadot perform exactly the same function in Burgundy, as does Dourthe in Bordeaux, Santa Rita in Chile and Bodegas Fabre in Argentina. 

The question might reasonably posed: why, then, bother to assess such wines at all? Well, for starters, half the fun of reviewing wine is enjoyment, and these producers are certain to provide that. But secondly, and more importantly, these producers provide the benchmark for many others in their regions. If the crème de la crème of the Rhône valley is underperforming, a void is left at the top of the pyramid, and the overall quality of the region's wines will suffer as a result.

Fortunately, this is not the case for this particular crème, Guigal, as evidenced by their 2015 Côtes du Rhône Blanc. At almost two-thirds Viognier, the quality of this Southern Rhône white blend is immediately apparent, with its supporting cast of Roussanne, Marsanne, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Grenache Blanc. A beautiful golden lemon colour in glass, the nose is classic white Rhône: white peach, acacia and pear immediately come to the fore, supported by a slightly cereal/leesy character in the background. The palate, too, is typical: medium to full-bodied and lowish acidity, with similar stone fruits and floral flavours coming through. Everything is balanced and well-defined, with an impressive finish for a basic CDR Blanc. My only mild criticism is that it's not as opulent or textural as some of my favourite whites from the Rhône Valley. Having said that, if you want excitement, you buy an Alfa Romeo. If you want assured efficiency and competence, you buy a Merc. The Guigal CDR Blanc is most certainly the latter.

Tom's Rating: A well-made and typical - if not exhilarating - Côtes du Rhône Blanc. A must-have fridge standby for an array of dishes.

Available at: various, £10

Sunday, 2 July 2017

60 Second Wine Reviews: Château Phélan Ségur 2010

The market for the red wines of Bordeaux is fascinating. Rather unlike its stuffy, conservative image, the modern trade in Claret is marked by a fast-paced dynamism. The classification of 1855 is slowly being eroded: what was once a reliable guide of quality and price is being royally trampled on by upwardly-mobile châteaux, eager to produce the best wines possible in the various communes and terroirs. The upside is that Claret lovers have never had it so good. The downside? Aside from there no longer being a reliable 'league table' of quality, pricing - to the casual observer - now seems something of a mystery.

Take today's wine: Château Phélan Ségur from the fabled 2010 vintage. Phélan Ségur in 1855 missed out on its chance for 'cru classé' status: the honours instead going to its St-Estèphe neighbours, Calon Ségur (3rd growth) and Montrose (2nd growth). Whilst Phélan doesn't quite attain the prices of its counterparts, it nevertheless far outstrips the market price of many classed growths, and is a prime example of the mildly ludicrous situation of having a 162 year old classification still in operation.

Politics aside, the 2010 Phélan Ségur is an absolute belter. A deep ruby in glass, the nose is at once generous yet tightly coiled: I scribbled down blackcurrant, plum, pudding spice and hints of pencil lead. After decanting, something resembling five spice made it onto my jotter pad too. In the mouth, the wine is incredibly full and powerful, with the rich, unctuous fruit perfectly framed by the acidity and tannic structure. Truly, this is a wine that either requires many more years in bottle, or a cut of rare sirloin. I'm impatient; I opted for the latter.

Tom's Rating: Legendary US wine critic Robert Parker called the 2010 Phélan "a major sleeper of the vintage". For my money, it needs a bit more of a lie-in before truly coming to life. Still delicious though.

Available at: various, £50

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

60 Second Wine Reviews: La Réserve de Léoville Barton 2010

Although still a relatively recent phenomenon, the concept of a 'second wine' in Bordeaux is nevertheless now firmly established. With the astronomical sums being demanded for the region's top classed growths, the second wine really does make sense: invariably, these are wines with an earlier drinking window, perhaps crafted from younger vines or using a higher percentage of Merlot, and which spend less time in oak and are consequently lighter in style. In short, the second wine should offer the consumer a taste of the estate's showpiece offering, without burning too much of a hole in the pocket.

The real sweet spot is to be found in the top vintages, as displayed so majestically here with La Réserve de Léoville Barton 2010. The wine is a composition from Bartons Léoville and Langoa (2nd and 3rd growths respectively) which occupy prime locations in Bordeaux's St Julien sub-region. For context, you'd be hard pushed to find either of the estates' top offerings from 2010 at less than £100 a bottle. On the nose, the complexity of La Réserve is immediately appreciable: blackcurrant, smoke, cedar, cream and currant arise from the glorious deep liquid. The palate, as with St Julien wines in general, is framed by prominent tannins, which effortlessly balance out with the wine's body, alcohol and acidity. The finish is something to behold too - incredible length laced with savoury spices; the sure sign of a great, great wine.

Tom's Rating: Wow. It's really quite hard to express the sheer quality of this wine in words. Will continue to reward patient owners over the next decade and more.

Available at: various, £30