Wine of the Week: Definition rioja from Majestic

Do you remember the lure of warehouse outlets? Getting lost somewhere near Hemel Hempstead looking for a place that did Pringle seconds was an intrinsic part of growing up in the 80s and 90s. Majestic successfully applied this concept to wine. Those scruffy shops, wooden pallets and piles of boxes promised, though didn’t always deliver, bargains. Nowadays though we don’t need to go to Hemel because we have the internet. Majestic’s business model is looking a little outdated, squeezed on value by internet retailers and supermarkets who are getting better at selling small parcels of wine and on service by the revitalised independent sector.

Majestic have taken on Rowan Gormley founder of Naked Wines in an attempt to revitalise the company. They’re trialling selling single bottles, previously you had to buy six, and in some stores they’re ditching the warehouse look completely. The refitted Mayfair shop looks like a modern independent such as Bottle Apostle with its Enomatic machines and bottles displayed horizontally as if they’re rare books. Apparently this is meant to be less intimidating to customers though I’d say making your shops fancier would make them more intimidating. They’re still keeping the special offers which means that most wines are overpriced unless they’re on offer.

What I used to love about Majestic were peculiar one off parcels they used to have such as Swedish claret and mature Germans rieslings  At one point, about fifteen years ago, they had a large selection of good German rieslings for around £5 a bottle. These began to dwindle and recent mature Germans have been a bit disappointing. They do sometimes have some old riojas in. It’s worth getting on their mailing list to hear about new offers. One not so old rioja caught my eye recently. It’s from their new own label range called Definition. This is the first time Majestic have done own labels. They’re wines from classic regions and on the whole they’re pretty good if not exactly cheap. One really stood out:

Definition Rioja Reserva 2009 (£12.99 – £10 when on offer which is a total bargain)

This is quite superb rioja for the price. The contrast between the tobacco and leather and the bright red fruit reminded me of far more expensive producers such as La Rioja Alta. 

It’s worth getting lost in Hemel for.

Sediment: Two Gentlemen and their mid-life terroirs

I started this blog partly because I thought I’d spotted a gap in the market. I couldn’t find anyone who was writing about wine but also bringing in literature, history and a good dose of silliness. Most wine writers seemed to have their noses firmly in the glass. They wrote about terroir and malolactic fermentation, new oak and concrete eggs. This is not to dismiss proper wine writing, some do it superbly, and I do like reading in-depth stuff about flights of dry German Rieslings etc. I, however, was going to use wine as an excuse to write about myself. I started in October 2010 and despite a couple of quite boring posts, I quickly got into my stride and started to feel very pleased with myself. Imagine my horror when I found out that someone had beaten me to it. Sediment Blog started in July 2010. Not only were they doing what I wanted to be doing: writing about everyday wines, making jokes, complaining about impecunious circumstances but they were doing it really well.

Then they started being nominated for awards and proper journalists such as Nicholas Lezard, who is a sort of friend or maybe a friend of a friend, began to praise them. Who were these two people CJ and PK? After a bit of digging I was some relief to find out that they were actual writers. It would have been galling if such effortlessly funny prose was being created by people whose first writing experience was a blog. Every post was beautifully structured. It’s less like a blog and more like series of short essays using wine as starting point to explore ideas. After a while my blog changed as I got sucked into the wine world. I was no longer an outsider but someone who was sent samples; I got a job writing a weekly wine column for the Lady. I became a wine bore. But CJ and PK carried on loving wine but treating the wine world with the bemusement it deserved.

Earlier this year we took the almighty step and the three of us met for lunch. They suggested El Vino, where else? I expected PK, a lover of old claret, to be patrician and tall, whereas CJ a connoisseur of Aldi rioja, would be a non-nonsense working class type, maybe even Northern. Of course it was the other round. PK is a bit of geezer, the self-made man, one can imagine him in Charlotte Street in the 80s having three hour lunches and then making lager adverts, whereas CJ has a touch of the John Le Mesurier about him. We had pies which were excellent and an awful old red that had clearly been forgotten about in the cupboards of El Vino. They both seemed to like it. Over lunch they told me about the book they were writing.

Well it’s coming out this month and it’s very funny. You don’t  have to be interested in wine to enjoy it. I thought the sharpest essay was called ‘From Plonk to Plonkers’. It’s ostensibly a review of a book about wine by Jay McInerney but it really examines how lovers of fine wine sometimes have to put up with some disagreeable company. Most wine writers are nice as are most wine makers I’ve met (though normally in a very opinionated sort of way.) The problem is that if you want to drink very expensive wine somebody is going to have to pay for it and that often means spending time with rich people. Now I’m sure when they’re with their wives, ex-wives, children and dogs, rich people can be perfectly pleasant, but when they’re in groups waving their willies around and guzzling expensive wine, they are usually insufferable. It’s a very astute essay. McInerney’s articles on his adventures in the wine world should inspire envy but after reading Sediment, you see that’s there’s a melancholy about them:

“The actual price of drinking these wines is not the amount for which they are auctioned, but the time you might have to spend with people who wear window-pane sports jackets, crocodile shoes, and sunglasses formerly owned by Elvis.”

Not all the articles are as good as this one, sometimes they stray into pedantry or facetiousness but the strike rate is high. There’s nobody else doing what they’re doing in wine writing. Everyone else, including me, is just too close to the subject. Sediment are the little boys pointing out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

The Sediment boys are doing some readings accompanied by wine. More information here

Lady column – Perfect Ten

Rather ominously, the Lady have stopped putting my columns online so I’ll be posting them on my blog instead. Here’s my 2nd November offering:

As soon as I’m handed a wine list in restaurant, especially a good one, my mind goes blank. The thing I struggle most to remember is vintages. I can just about do Bordeaux but after that I’m lost.  Was 08 a good vintage in Tuscany or was it the Rhone? This stuff matters. Wine varies enormously from year to year.  Very infrequently a vintage comes along that makes life simple because it’s good all over the world. 2010 was good to outstanding pretty much everywhere but particularly in red wine regions that I drink most of: Burgundy, Rioja, the Rhone, the Languedoc and Bordeaux. The best thing about 2010s is not only do they have bags of ripe fruit but they are also very fresh. When you have a year like this, the cheaper wines, the ordinary clarets, the plain Bourgognes and the Cote-du-Rhones, are the ones to go for. So my advice when consulting a wine list is if it has 2010 on, then buy. I can just about remember that.

Yering Station Pinot Noir 2010 Slurp £14.99

Australia also had a good 2010. This is elegant and savoury, without excessive alcohol but with an Australian generosity of fruit. I liked it so much that I bought a case to go with our Thanksgiving turkey.

Cotes-du-Rhone Guigal 2010 £9.99 Majestic when you buy two bottles

This old stalwart is particularly fine in 2010. It’s great now but will be even better in a year or two when those tannins fade.

Grand Bateau 2010 £9.95 Roberson

Sometimes  you can get good claret for under £10 a bottle. This smells of ripe plums and leather and on the palate it’s smooth with enough bite to keep it interesting.
Hunawihr Riesling Grand Cru Rosacker 2010 Slurp £15.95

Riesling from Alsace might just be my favourite white  wine. This one is intense and sherberty, extremely dry with a long mineral finish.

Thanksgiving 2012

IMG_3733I’ve been meaning to write up our thanksgiving wine binge for a while now but it has taken me a week to recover from all the port I put away. It can only be a matter of time before I join my father in gout hell. Until I met my wife I had no idea what Thanksgiving was all about. I thought it might have been something to do with the  hated British and throwing tea in Boston harbour. Actually it seems to be about eating and drinking a lot and seeing friends and family. As a big fan of the first two, it’s my kind of public holiday. Here’s what we drank:

Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru – I loved this. It’s very dry and serious and has a sort of stripped down lithe power that’s more Bruce Lee than Mike Tyson.  I tend to like my champagnes big and blowsy like sparkling Meursault, this is opposite, a Grand Cru Chablis would be a good comparison. You can taste the chalk in the soil. Also has very beautiful small bubbles.

Parcel Series Riesling 2006 – I like an Australian Riesling of an evening but only when it’s mature like this one. When young they can be aggressively acidic. This one has all those limey, toasty flavours that you’d hope for though without the intensity of a great example.

Jeanne Gaillard Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes 2010 – it’s a Syrah from the Northern Rhone but, tasted blind, I’d have said Cru Beaujolais. There’s lots of ripe red fruit, very little tannin and then a slatey, mineral finish that reminded me of Morgon.  Your Christmas day wine hunt is over as I can’t imagine a better match for turkey.

Fonseca Porto Guimaraens 1996  – the problem with this wine is that it’s too delicious. So beautifully balanced is this that after a little glass, I forgot I was drinking a sweet wine of 20% and was putting it away like it was a light claret. By the end of the night, I had become a little, how shall we put this, reactionary. I was sent to bed with the last of the port and a copy of the Spectator.

The champagne is about £50 a bottle and the port £25. Both are easily worth the money with the port offering exceptional value for money. The syrah and the riesling are both from Majestic and extraordinarily cheap at £7.99 and £6.99 respectively though I can’t find the white online so they may have run out. 

How condescending is your wine merchant?

When I received PR bumf from a new wine website called Ten Green Bottles with phrases such as ‘innovative concept’ and ‘unique wines’, I was going to write something on the meaningless guff used to promote things. Then I realised that this isn’t the letters page of the Telegraph and that everyone is at it. Even the dear old Wine Society’s catalogue is full of wines described as ‘iconic’ when they mean ‘famous’, ‘sought-after’ or just plain ‘expensive.’ Instead I thought I would look at one of their claims that when visiting a wine merchant ‘the service is either non-existent or can be condescending.’ The patronising or, even more damning in today’s egalitarian society, snobbish wine merchant is a great stock character in conversation (normally in conversations between people in the wine trade trying to differentiate themselves from this stereotyped image.) I wonder, however, whether this figure might be more of a useful myth rather than anything mired in reality.

I have had two bad experiences with a wine merchant. One was in 2000 at Corney and Barrow on Kensington Park Road where they had some mature Pewsey Vale Riesling at a very reasonable price. I asked the shop assistant whether it was any good, he looked down his nose at me and said ‘well, it’s Australian riesling’ with the implication that as it was Australian it couldn’t be any good (turns out it was excellent.) My other bad experience has taken place in Nicolas on countless occasions where the staff more often than not combine superciliousness with ignorance. I don’t shop at Nicolas anymore. Oh and there was a wine merchant in Barcelona who actually threw me out for browsing too close to his wines.

To be fair to the chap at Corney and Barrow, I was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, jeans with holes in and looked like I hadn’t been to bed in a while. I was working round the corner at Oddbins on Portobello Road. When a customer walked into the shop, I tried to gauge how interested in wine he (I’m using he in its little-used but grammatically correct neutral gender form) was. Pitch it too high and I would end up boring the customer, too low and he might feel patronised. With a complicated subject like wine, it’s a tricky act to pull off. Despite going to wine tastings every week and having read widely on the subject, I still glaze over when people start talking about soil types or fermentation temperatures.

It’s interesting to compare a wine merchant with other keepers of arcane knowledge such as bicycle shops or motor mechanics. I have lost count of the number of times that people in bike shops have actually been rude to me (I’m thinking of you in particular short stocky man with dark hair in Condor on Greys Inn Road) and with cars, I’ve been badly ripped off on a couple of occasions. Knowing quite a bit about bikes as I do about wine, hasn’t prevented these bad experiences (I know almost nothing about cars once you open the bonnet). My point, I suppose, is that in my experience wine merchants are no more unfriendly than other shopkeepers and certainly much more personable than many other people we deal with, bike mechanics, bank tellers or, worst of all, midwives. The problem, I think, is that some people are intimidated by the sheer multitude of bottles and so the whole process is fraught with nerves.

Ten Green Bottles have an answer to this as well in that they only stock a limited range of wines. I’m going to be looking at their wines in more detail in a forthcoming column in the Lady but meanwhile I’d like to recommend their Castello di Potentino Piropo at £13.50. This is a Tuscan blend of Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Grenache. Sounds like it’s going to be a dog’s dinner but it’s actually rather beautiful. It’s pale-coloured, a sort of tawny red hue and mellow with flavours of spiced oranges and some gentle tannin. It’s a very laid-back sort of wine.

I’d be very interested in hearing readers experiences with wine merchants (and indeed bike shops, banks and midwives.)


Wine interview: Caro Feely

Before giving it all up and buying that plot of land in France, I’d advise you read Grape Expectations: A Family’s Vineyard Adventure in France by Caro Feely. Caro and her husband Sean originally from South Africa but both doing something lucrative and consultative in Dublin bought, seemingly on a whim, a run-down estate in Bergerac. Neither of them have any experience of viticulture and they have two young children. It almost ends in financial, medical and matrimonial disaster but by luck and determination/ bloody-mindedness they have made the estate a success. I found the sheer complexity of running their domaine fascinating. The wines of Chateau Haut-Garrigue are now available in Britain and Ireland and have picked up some good notices in the press. I’m particularly looking forward to trying their Saussignac, a sweet wine made with nobly-rotten Semillon and Sauvignon grapes. Caro Feely has very kindly agreed to take part in a Q&A.

When did you first realise that wine was something special and can you remember the wine that triggered this feeling?

When I was about 18 and in my last year at school my sister Jacquie introduced me to good things like Boschendal Blanc de Noir and Twee Jonge Gezellen TJ39 and less fancy wines like the famous Tassies or Tassenberg – a favourite of students in SA as a local song goes: ‘dis nie goeie vyn dis nie goeie vyn maar dit proe eerste clas,’ (my afrikaans spelling is no doubt incorrect so apologies) ‘it’s not good wine its not good wine but it tastes first class’ especially when you are a student on a tight budget. Then in my first couple of years working in Johannesburg I shared a house with a fella who was a master of wine and he had a cellar worth about 10000 euro in the house: a source of more fine education on wine. This was probably when I began to understand just how much variety and interest there was in wine and it was around that time I met Sean whose grandparents had been winegrowers in the Cape.

Before your change of career, what was your favourite wine region?

I don’t recall being particularly for one region or another. I loved the wines of South Africa like Springfield Life from Stone and Fairview’s Mourvedre blend, wines of France from the small producers in Languedoc, Loire and Bordeaux.

You don’t flinch from describing quite how hard the life of a vigneron is; if you knew then what you know now would you have bought the property in Bergerac?

No way! But I am pleased I didn’t know and that we did it as I think we are ‘stronger steel’ having been through the fire now.

You also don’t flinch from criticising your husband Sean. How did he react when he read the book?

He knows he can be pig-headed sometimes… He thinks it’s a good book. Being an ex-journalist and English major for his first degree he’s one hard task master. His reaction to an early draft was far from positive but hard feedback from him and 2 other journalist friends were necessary but nasty medicine to helping me find my voice.

You have taken to biodynamics in a big way, what do you think yourold self would say about ‘crystal spectrums’ and burying cow horns in the ground?

I was very sceptical. I think once you have worked with nature everyday the way we do it is impossible not to be convinced. When I walk out and smell extremely strong floral perfumes I know it is a flower day and hey presto the calender confirms it is, when I smell super earthy smells it is a root day. I could go on for hours… There is way more to life than our current tunnel vision approach to science explains. For the wine tours and classes we offer I talk biodynamics very practically.

From reading your book, I can tell that you take enormous care over every aspect of the wine-making process and yet you machine harvest for most of your wines. Do you think there is a contradiction here?

We do about half and half. The higher volume production like our core merlot and most of our dry white are machine harvested. This is because these are picked relatively early in the season so there is generally less need for sorting (no rot – although we do do what we call a negative pick by hand to remove what we don’t want harvested the afternoon before eg unripe or overripe bunches). It also means we can harvest in the cool night and being mid-September days can still be very hot. Hot harvest means more oxidation more need to SO2, more manipulation and shock to cool it in the winery and potential cooked aromas. We don’t want this. For us for the moment this is the good solution but overtime we would like to find a way to be able to hand harvest everything. There are pros and cons to the two options. For the top end reds where we harvest later and for the dessert wine it is all hand picked as here it is more important to sort bunch by bunch and even berry by berry (as with the Saussignac) plus the days are a bit cooler (October).

Who makes wine that you admire?

Strohmeier in Austria

Klur in Alsace

Kathleen Inman in the Russian River

Are there any wines/ regions/ countries that you avoid and if so why?

We tend to drink only organic and biodynamic wines knowing what we know about what goes into the rest….

What is the most that you have ever spent on a bottle of wine, what was the wine and was it worth it?

For one of the grand cru classé classes I gave at our wine school . I bought a Mouton 93 for around 240 euro and it was interesting for the occasion but I wouldn’t buy it for myself (I see it is worth way more now so maybe I should have held it to resell!).

What are you most looking forward to drinking from your cellar?

A client gave me a bottle of Pontet Canet 2006 (organic and biodynamic grand cru classé Pauillac) that I am looking forward to drinking. I tasted it at the estate a couple of years ago and it was superb.

Thanks to Summerdale Press I have one copy of this book to giveaway. Just email me on henry g jeffreys @ gmail dot com to go into the prize draw or RT this article & follow me on twitter @henrygjeffreys

Thanksgiving 2011

My American wife (my only wife in fact) has converted me to the joys of Thanksgiving. It combines the feasting of Christmas without having to worry about what to buy Auntie Marianne. The best thing about it is the chance to drink lots of good wine. I suppose I should be helping to prop up the economy of my wife’s home state but it is so hard to get good affordable Californian wine over here so this year’s line-up is all European. You can see what we drank above. If you look carefully between the tops of the two German wines you will see a picture of me in all my velour-attired 70s pomp.

Krug Grande cuvée, NV – this was brought by one of my guests. What a treat! It’s been a long time since I drank really good champagne and I had forgotten quite how uncompromising some are. This is very very rich and toasty with an electric charge of acidity. It’s like a sparkling Meursault. I wish I’d kept it to drink slowly rather than shared it with everyone.

Dorsheimer Pittermännchen, Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken, Michael Schafer, 2006 – this one is starting to take on the secondary aromas associated with age. In fact it was a bit cheesy when I opened it but after a day open in the fridge it freshened up. Though basically dry (halbtrocken – means half dry), I thought that it might be a little sweet to go with turkey so opened this:

Schieferberg, Ernst Loosen, Dry Riesling, 2009 – after making this my wine of the week in February last year, my dear brother who lives in Australia bought me a case for my birthday. Thanks George! I was intending to keep some to see how it aged but now have only two bottles left. It’s even better than I remember – perhaps that’s the extra eight months ageing.

Bourgogne Rouge, Joseph Voillot, 2009 – this one was the star even in such distinguished company. For once when talking about a wine, words such as seductive, feminine and even (dread word!) sexy seem appropriate. Everyone took a sip, stopped talking and went ‘mmmm.’ It’s a little riper and fleshier than most ordinary burgundy. One of my guests drinks a lot of good claret and even he was impressed.

Churchill’s Late Bottled Vintage 2003 – last year when I opened the port everyone had a glass and it disappeared quickly. This year, what with drivers and pregnant people, very few people partook. I don’t want to go into details but I ended up having a little too much and started putting my views on contemporary art over rather forcefully. Still apparently drunken arguments are a traditional part of Thanksgiving.

The whites are things I had in my cellar (damp cupboard.) The Krug is widely available for lots of money, the port can be bought from From Vineyards Direct and the burgundy came from House of Townend though I can’t find it on their site.