Lafage Bastide Miraflors 2011

Costco; £9

Produced deep within the Languedoc Roussillon region of southern France, this wine demonstrates just how difficult blind-tasting wines can be. I tasted this blind with a few friends, all of whom know a fair bit about wine – they’ve got qualifications and everything – and we all agreed that this was from the New World. Depending on who you asked, it had the softened edges and huge fruit of an Australian blend, or maybe showed the winery methods of the larger South African producers, or even the power of a Californian blockbuster.

(Side-note: they say that blind people’s other senses are enhanced. Do blind people make better wine-tasters? Seems that even a blind wine-taster doesn’t know.)

Fair to say, we were stumped. Despite some suggestions of it possibly being a southern Rhone, the one thing we were all agreed on is that it wasn’t from ‘regional’ southern France.

There are three possible reasons for us being totally wrong: one, we’re all morons. That’s probably the case in general, but actually our hit-rate is usually pretty reasonable when blind tasting; we’d expect to at least get vaguely the right continent. Two, the ‘Parkerisation‘ of wine has now reached the level that we can’t actually tell the difference between historically different wine regions any more. I think there is an element of this, no matter how much Parker objects. It’s not surprising that he rated this highly (93 points) – it’s pretty much his style in a nutshell, all huge black fruit and clean tannin.

Three, the average standard of Languedoc Roussillon is so far below this wine that we didn’t even consider it as an option. With a few notable exceptions, Languedoc Roussillon makes vast quantities of cheap wines for bargain-bin bottom-shelf supermarket purchases.

Henceforth, this is one of those exceptions. Belying its £9 price-tag, this is a superb wine. It has a clean, youthful nose full of blackberries, cassis and a slight red apple tinge to it. Once you take a sip, the fruit hits you – blackberry dominates until the peppery notes come through leaving your mouth almost tingling by the finish through soft tannin and surprisingly low acidity. And the finish is long – far longer than you’d reasonably expect from any wine under ten pounds a bottle.

This is a blend of Syrah and Grenache, and it brings out the best of both grapes. You get the soft, round palate of the Grenache and the power and spiciness of the Syrah. I still maintain that it doesn’t feel particularly French, but honestly, who cares? I’m guessing this will have run out of stock by now, as it was only made in relatively small quantities, but should you ever see it I recommend you snap it up immediately.

Score – 17/20 

Clefs des Papes Blanc 2010

Costco; £14

“White Chateauneuf-du-Pape” is one of those expressions that just doesn’t sounds right, like “trustworthy politician” or “British sunshine“. Red Chateauneuf-du-Pape can easily sell for hundreds of pounds, but the white grapes in the area – mostly Roussanne, Bourboulenc and Grenache Blanc – don’t get half as much attention.

And yet there’s something quite appealing about a white wine made in such a warm climate and with such attention to detail. In a world where a lot of value is currently attributed to cool, crisp whites, the slightly waxy, oily texture and low acidity of Southern French wines can be a refreshing change. If Viognier can become a ‘cult’ wine in its own right when surrounded by gallons of Syrah in the Northern Rhone, why can’t white Chateauneuf-du-Pape do the same?

This particular example – which, I note via the wonders of Google, is on a few restaurant wine lists at £45 a bottle – has a lovely nose, slightly fleeting but youthful and vibrant. There’s lemon and floral notes, a bit of freshly-cut grass. There’s a touch of minerality and a very subtle oak note.

(I suspect this wine has only seen old oak, and for a very short time, as Grenache Blanc has a nasty habit of oxidising in the barrel.)

On the palate, there’s the oiliness you get from a fullish-bodied, low-acid wine – but it feels harmonious and well-integrated. It’s got flavours of blossom, all leafy and fresh. It’s not flabby, and actually has a pleasantly creamy texture to it. The finish has reasonable if not stellar length, with quite a ‘savoury’ feel to it.

The whole experience is rounded and smooth. Not shouty or attention-seeking at all. It does feel a little heavy towards the end, like it may need some food alongside it.

Perhaps more than any other wine I’ve reviewed on this site so far, I’m struggling to sum this one up. It’s pleasant but doesn’t hit you right between the eyes and make you want another glass. And there’s a good reason that the heavy, oily style of white has never really been in fashion – it’s a bit of an effort.

So… If, like a lot of the population, you like your whites either oaky or light – probably one to leave alone, as I don’t think it will convince you. If you’re curious about trying a different sort of white, I’d recommend it but suggest you put it with some chicken or a meaty fish meal. If it sounds like your kind of thing, I’d heartily suggest looking out for Clefs des Papes.

Score – 14/20

Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2011

Costco; £11. Also Majestic; £16

economies of scale

Seriously, how do Costco do it? I mean, I’ve worked in various bits of business for many years, and I understand the principles of economies of scale and buying power. But even so, for one company to be able to sell a wine for £5 less than its reasonably large local rival – effectively, 30% off – is pretty amazing.

Margaret River is a name that should be better known to your average customer. Ask a random supermarket customer what Aussie wines are like, 99% of the time they will talk about huge, fruity reds from Barossa or heavily-oaked Chardonnays from the 1990s.

However, the Australian winemaking world is maturing, with Margaret River and Tasmania at the heart of this movement. These are the cooler parts of this vast country – with the insurmountable surge of global warming, this is a major plus point for winemakers. The nature of Margaret River’s climate on the west coast means it is actually fairly similar to Bordeaux in a lot of ways, so winemakers can make beautifully delicate and intense Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots.

It also makes plenty of Chardonnay. The style isn’t always quite as buttery or elegant as white Burgundy – there is still the frequent note of tropical fruit and oak, although this is starting to change. This particular example is actually very restrained, with very good oak integration on the nose. It’s got good citrus and nutty notes that entice you in for more.

vasse felixWhen you dive in and take a sip, it doesn’t smack you around the face in the way that Aussie Chardonnays of old would have done. It actually feels more Chablis than full-on Burgundy – quite austere, despite the obviously warmer climate. There are stone fruit flavours of peach and apricot alongside the lemon and white flower notes. There is a touch of oak on the palate, although it is very well woven into the texture of the wine: it’s medium bodied with a very slight unctuousness and only very slight oak bitterness on the finish.

And it’s moreish. I wasn’t expecting this to be the case, but I quickly poured a second and third glass of it. There’s something honest and pleasing about such a well-made wine, even at over a tenner. It’s even pleasing if you buy it at Majestic at over fifteen pounds, and that’s not something that I’ll say that often.

Score – 16/20 (15/20 if you buy it at Majestic)

Turkey Flat ‘Butcher’s Block’ 2009

Costco; £10.50

When I first started to get interested in wine, plenty about the whole business irritated me. All the fripperies and equipment, the special glasses and fancy decanters and strange swooshing and spitting – it all seemed a bit pretentious and unnecessary.

I still think that about some of those things, but others I’ve come to appreciate: most crucially, the role of the decanter. It doesn’t have to be an ornate paean to drinking in the finest crystal, such as the faintly ludicrous Reidel one shown here – a milk jug will do – but it does play an important role in ‘opening up’ red wines.

This particular Aussie red is an ideal case in point. I opened the bottle, took a moment to appreciate the screwcap which I think is still under-used in Europe, poured most of it into the decanter to have with dinner, then poured a tasting-size glass and started to rate it.

And I didn’t like it. Not one bit. The nose was undoubtedly impressive – big and powerful, full of plums and dark cherries, pepper and spice – but when you took a sip it just felt harsh and ‘pointed’, not warming and round like the nose suggested. In amongst all the firey alcohol, there was definitely a core of something.. but it was a bit like drinking neat fruit juice concentrate. You know the right basic flavour’s there, but you can’t help thinking that the whole experience could be more pleasant.

So that was it – decent nose, quite good length, shame about the middle bit, 11/20 score, currently a bit disappointing but might develop over time but probably one for a few years hence. Job done.

And then I came back to it 90 minutes or so later. They do say time’s a great healer, and immediately all was forgiven. Turns out, this is a rather good wine after all. All those hard edges had been smoothed by a good airing, leaving behind a velvety-soft, peppery mouth feel. Notes of baked apple and liquorice appeared alongside a lovely dark chocolate finish and the plummy, dark cherry notes from the nose.

This is a Shiraz-Grenache-Mourvèdre blend, which is a common high-quality Australian mix (the so-called ‘GSM’) – however the proportion of Shiraz is relatively high here. That means there’s good acidity and not too much tannin – I would never say that this in any way a light wine, but it’s not quite as brutally heavy as many similar reds.

The finish is fairly long, although perhaps a little too alcoholic for my taste – you can really taste every one of the 14.5% abv, especially after a glass or two. I would say it’s one to go with a hearty meat dish: I paired it with an Asian duck-leg recipe and it coped admirably with all the spices.

This will probably be near its peak for at least another five years, but I very much enjoyed opening it now. Just make sure you give it some time to open up before tucking in!

Score – 15/20

Kirkland Carneros Pinot Noir 2010

Costco; £8

In many ways we’re very like the Americans here in the UK, increasingly so as our TV schedules fill up with imported programming, but there are some things about them that we simply don’t understand. For example, over here rounders is a sport for girls under 12; in the US it’s watched by millions as two North American teams crown themselves world champions every year.

Similarly, I don’t really understand the average American wine drinker’s philosophy about red grape varieties. Of course I’m generalising hugely, but many Americans I’ve spoken to about wine have grouped the world into Zin, Cab and Pinot. Sure, the odd one also mentioned Merlot in passing, and Syrah and Petite Sirah (Durif) get occasional reference, but generally it’s the big three Californian styles that dominate the collective consciousness.

It isn’t surprising that the main home-grown grapes are king, as imported wines are disproportionately expensive in the States. The issue comes when US wines are imported into Europe. Should we compare them to the Old World styles we grow, the cheaper Aussie / NZ New World styles we already import, or treat them as a category all by themselves?

Because, make no mistake, this £8 Pinot Noir is nothing like a Burgundy, even a cheap Bourgogne, and not much like a New Zealand Pinot Noir either. Yes, it looks similar – pale ruby in the glass. It even smells fairly similar – violets, raspberries and strawberries and dark cherries on a pronounced, quite sweet, nose.

But it doesn’t taste the same. There’s almost no body, no real tannin. Although it does have acceptable balance, it’s far too sweet for my tastes. By the end of one glass, it feels like alcoholic Ribena – it’s very simplistic with blackberry alongside raspberry notes. It’s not got a particularly long finish either, although the residual sweetness does cloy to the tongue for a while.

This may appeal to many as a cheap-and-cheerful, gluggable wine. And the things I list as negative points may be positives to people that love the Californian style of Pinot Noir. Fair enough. But I really can’t recommend it at all; I found it unassuming, unchallenging and uninteresting.

Score – 9/20

Faustino I 1999

Costco; £12

Maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting old, but 1999 does seem quite a long time ago. Tony Blair was still popular; Robbie Williams was topping the charts. Boris Yeltsin was still (nominally) in charge of Russia. And the Millennium Bug was a genuine fear rather than a tired punchline – I vageuly recall Peter Snow telling us in apocalyptic tones that planes would fall out of the sky and hospital computer systems would implode.

And yet in wine terms, 1999′s not old at all. In the world of Rioja Gran Riserva, this wine is practically a foetus, which, now I think of it, is a hideous image to comtemplate as you pour a glass.

This relative youth is immediately obvious when you look at it – it’s not brickish red, like you’d expect from an aged wine. Instead it still glows with a vibrant ruby. And it has a powerful nose, all pungent cherry, plum and leather, with spices galore. Swirl it round the mouth and you immediately get a sense of heat and acidity, alongside slightly drier red fruit flavours and pleasingly discreet tannin.

And the finish is long, quite startlingly long for a £12 wine. The price can vary; I’ve actually seen this in a few locations, notably Sainsbury’s who are selling other vintages for £18. But I’d recommend Costco for price over Sainsbury’s for convenience in this case; a 50% markup is pretty telling.

One gripe I do have with this wine is the bottle. It has frosted wrapping all the way up to the neck, which looks lovely, but goes create some practical issues. It covers so much that you’d need a thousand-lumen light and an electron microscope to see if there’s any sediment coming out when decanting, and as this is 14 years old it does throw a fair bit of sediment. This means a chewier-than-expected drinking experience.

But this is a minor quibble on my part. This Gran Riserva will last a good while yet – it could probably go another 5-8 years and still have very similar characteristics. However, I’d recommend buying a couple and opening at least one of them when it still has the fire and exuberance of youth.

Score – 16/20

Stark-Condé Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Costco; £6 (in box of six)

Let me start by confessing something. Something that won’t endear me to the vast majority of wine snobs out there. In fact, it’s so heinous that I’ll whisper it, soliloquy-style:

I don’t usually like Cabernet Sauvignon very much. If I wanted a mouth full of tannin and cigar-smokiness, I’d have taken up chewing bark while smoking cigars. 

There, I’ve said it. It’s not a favourite of mine by any means. And despite this, the only single-varietal bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon I’ve reviewed on this site went down rather well, notwithstanding a label so well-known that strikes fear into the hearts of many. Stark-Condé, by contrast, is a relatively small Stellenbosch outfit largely known for its smooth Syrahs alongside Bordeaux blends, although recent developments suggest a move towards diversification towards ‘lighter’ wines such as Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir. In the UK they’ve got themselves a major distributor: although the official Stark-Condé website seems unaware of it, the importer of this Cabernet Sauvignon is Costco, allegedly the world’s biggest wine buyer.

Many years ago, I worked as a consultant to some consumer goods companies, many of which were obsessed with planograms. Planogramming is basically the art of placing something on a supermarket shelf so it sells well – for example, premium goods are often at eye-level, and impulse buys are near the checkout tills. It has often since intrigued me to wonder what the store manager was thinking when he placed a particular product. In the Croydon Costco warehouse, this Stark-Condé was hidden away between boxes of Blossom Hill and Hardy’s – hardly an auspicious location.

However, and here follows a tip for anyone buying wine in Costco, I had my trusty copy of Wine Behind the Label with me. This compendious book of recommendations by vineyard – now sold on .pdf file so it can be put on a Kindle – is a godsend for those of us that like to mix and match random bottles. It suggested that the Stark-Condé Cabernet Sauvignon was a ‘good or very good’ wine, and would cost at least £10. As I could get six bottles for £30 (plus VAT), this seemed a decent deal and I dived in.

Despite my misgivings about the grape, I quickly warmed to this wine. There’s a  deepness of ruby colour and a peppery-spicy-oakiness of the nose that is immediately enticing. When you sip it, there’s a surprising amount of acidity and a mint and eucalyptus flavour alongside the blackcurrant and cedar you’d expect from a Cabernet Sauvignon. The tannins are fine and soft – critically, as overpowering tannin is what ruins affordable Bordeaux in my opinion – and the finish is pretty decent, medium length and slightly leathery in the back of the throat.

Usually I’d say Cabernet Sauvignon has its place alongside red meat, but I actually think this one could be drunk alone or with something a bit more mellow. I would point out that this is based on decanting for an hour or so before drinking – and it opened up noticeably over the course of tasting.

This has nice sweet fruit, pleasant lightish tannin, and it always seems to invite you to sip again. It’s not hugely complex like some Bordeaux blends, but it’s warming and soft and tasty; for £6 I think it represents excellent value. And it’ll last a few years, so the fact that you can only buy it in a box of six isn’t a worry either. Look out for it next time you’re in Costco.

Score – 16/20

Albert Bichot Montagny 1er Cru 2010

Costco; £10

A Burgundy premier cru for less than €13 after import costs and UK tax, even a Côte Chalonnaise, seems a bit too good to be true for me. I was recently in the area and was delighted to find a decent premier cru for less than €20, direct from source. (On a side note, the best value wine I found there was the 2007 Meursault ‘Les Narvaux’ from family producer Christophe Diconne, which tasted three times more expensive than the €15 per bottle I forked out for it. The only reason I’ve not reviewed it here and gone into raptures about it? I’ve not found anywhere that actually sells it in the UK.)

As I don’t have the buying power of the behemoth that is Costco, I’ll give this the benefit of the doubt and dive in. So far Costco hasn’t really let me down when buying by the single bottle – only the dubious Ravenswood Zinfandel 2008, which you can only buy in a box of six, has been a disappointment.

I’m afraid that run ends here. As I’d feared, the reason this is cheap is because it tastes quite cheap. There’s not a huge amount on the nose – a bit of citrus and mineral and a little oak, but not much more.

On the palate, it’s dry, pretty acidic, and has some fairly simple flavours: lemon, a bit of melon and pear but nothing that really grabs you. What pervades is a slightly ‘metallic’ flavour that is actually rather unpleasant.

The finish is actually reasonably long, but that’s not a good thing I’m afraid – it’s got a bitterness of oak that just scorches the tonsils and makes you run your tongue against your teeth in a vain effort to get rid of it.

This wine feels like a simple Aussie Chardonnay, not a premier cru Burgundy. And, to be honest, that’s about the most damning thing I could say to a Burgundian about his wine. Costco has some superb value wines at the £9-15 range, but this isn’t one of them.

Score – 10/20

Jacob’s Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Pretty much any supermarket; around £6

Oh… lordy, lordy. Where on earth do I start with this one?  For many years now, Jacob’s Creek has been a symbol of everything that we perceive as wrong with the wine industry. A monolithic, monochromatic, megalomanic monstrosity – the harbinger of dull, characterless wine spread across all possible combinations of Australian grapes and exported to the highest bidder around the world.

It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I reached for this bottle. I mean, look at it. Even the label’s dull beyond belief. However, Orlando – the company that owns and makes Jacob’s Creek, and once a reasonably premium label in its own right – does make some decent Riesling, and a good if hugely overpriced Shiraz-Cabernet blend (the ‘Johann‘). So in order to mask my innate prejudice against the brand, I blind-tasted this one against a couple of other similarly-priced Cabs.

I was ready to absolutely slate this wine. I aspired to writing something as vitriolic as this magnificent review. And you know what? I can’t. Because it’s actually – whisper it - not that bad. I’d even go so far as to say it’s pretty good. If they were selling it at £10, I would have some cause for complaint. But for me a £6 red doesn’t have to be hugely complex, or dazzle you with a million flavours. It’s got to be pleasant, not too sweet or tannic, and leave you with a warm, fuzzy glow. And this bottle of Jacob’s Creek does that. I hope you realise just how sordid I feel writing that.

It’s got a big nose, as you’d expect. It’s not actually that fruity, however, unlike most Aussie Cabernets I’ve tasted. It’s actually more like what I’d expect from an Old World wine – more savoury, all cigar, pepper and herbs alongside the trademark blackcurrant note. The one Australian giveaway is the note of eucalyptus.

In the mouth, it’s not exactly inspiring – medium acid, medium tannin, medium taste. There’s the blackcurrant and a bit of plum with toasty, peppery notes on top of a full-bodied roundness with a soft texture. It’s obviously been oaked fairly cheaply, but it’s not intrusive or distracting. It’s nice. It’s not amazing, but it’s a good mouthful. And I’d drink it again – what surprised me was that there is some decent length on the finish, certainly for a wine priced so competitively.

For the price, it’s a very good option if you can get beyond any label snobbery. If you see it for more than six or seven quid, think twice. But this score is at the price I saw it at. I still instinctively feel rather unclean rating it so highly, but at least I’m not alone – this wine has already won a couple of gold medals in the USA. So there.

Score – 15/20

Battistina Gavi de Commune di Gavi 2011

Costco, £7

As I’ve mentioned previously on this site, Italian wines baffled me for a fair proportion of my life. Such a patchwork of regions, grape varieties and synonyms for very similar styles and production methods; it’s a wonder an outsider can get any handle on it at all. I remember with only mild shame that on one early WSET exam I did I got into such a muddle I couldn’t remember if Taurasi was a grape or a region, or both.

For this particular example, we’re in north-west Italy. Gavi is a DOCG white wine region in Piedmont, and has made light, refreshing, zingy table wines for centuries. I picked this bottle up at a recent forage of Costco’s latest offerings – the wonderful and/or infuriating thing about Costco is that you can never be sure what will be there next week, so you have to go on gut instinct and hope.

In the glass, it’s textbook Gavi – pale, with a light floral nose dominated by citrus. If we’d had any sunshine here in the UK this year, I’d say it already feels like a summer wine. (As it is, it feels rather out of place under dark miserable skies, but that’s hardly the wine’s fault…)

On the palate, the dry acidity hits you like a lightning bolt. The overwhelming taste is of lime, with some softer notes of blossom and greengage. The citrus lingers on the tongue for a fairly long time; consider it a grown-up version of a lemon-lime soft drink to have with fish or even lighter barbecue food.

For £7, I think this is an excellent find. It won’t win awards, largely because it’s simple – but then it’s not supposed to be too much more than that. As it should be, it’s light and refreshing, and unlike the Tempranillo I reviewed yesterday (here), it has something – the citrus acidity – that really makes you stand up and take notice. It’s not a great wine; but I’d say it borders on very good. And for the price, I can only recommend it.

Score – 15/20