Wine articles

A Victorian Christmas – claret and whisky in the same glass

Here’s my annual Lady Christmas bumper wine extravaganza. It should be up on their site soon. I’ve annotated it slightly for the blog: 

Most of our festive traditions such as Christmas trees, sending cards and mince pies back to the long reign of Queen Victoria. So this year I thought it would be fun to have Victorian-themed Christmas: we’ll buy the biggest turkey in the shop, ice skate on the Thames and send our three year old daughter up chimneys to pay for it all.

Queen Victoria’s drink of choice was a mixture of claret and whisky.  Luckily for our guests, her subjects had much better taste. All the world’s great drinks were available in London and they had more or less assumed their present form by the end of Victoria’s reign. Champagne had gone from being a sweet syrupy drink to the bone dry aperitif we know today, gin became smooth and aromatic and claret entered its golden age. (I’m subtly trying to plug my book here.) 

Thanks to William Gladstone’s Single Bottle Act of 1861, for the first time ordinary people could buy wine by the bottle. Previously they would have to have bought at least a case and visited a specialist merchant. Grocers’ shops and the new department stores that were founded at this time were now selling wine and it led to boom in consumption fuelled by the first mass marketing (and here).

So here’s what we’ll be drinking. There are a couple of expensive table wines to serve if you’re expecting a big Christmas bonus and a couple if you aren’t. I’ll be in the latter boat.

Churchill Unfiltered LBV 2005 (Oddbins £16)

It wouldn’t be a Victorian Xmas without port (God this is such a cliched phrase. We have just been watching Nigella  Lawson and apparently Christmas isn’t Christmas without chestnuts. With Jamie Oliver it’s clementines. He puts the zest in everything). This is one to give those who say they don’t like port because it’s not cloyingly sweet. In fact it tastes almost savoury with the most amazing floral aroma. So good you’d think it was twice the price.

Harvey Nichols Sauternes 2010 (half bottle £15)

This is made by one of the best estates in Sauternes, Chateau Coutet. It’s in a light fresh style with an intense aroma of marmalade, dried apricots and honey.

Quinta do Carvalhais 2010 (Tesco £8.99)

It wasn’t just port, a huge percentage of the wine drunk in Britain during the 19th century would have come from Portugal (probably pushing the Victorian theme a bit here). It’s leathery and spicy with lots of red fruit; just the thing to have with turkey (I’ve drunk about fifteen bottles of this recently and in some of them there’s quite prominent oak. It’s worth decanting and after a while the vanilla taste disappears. Other bottles don’t taste oaky at all. I assume this wine is made in such vast quantities that the bottles vary.)

Cliffhanger Riesling 2013 (Tesco £9.50)

You’ve got to have something German in honour of dear old Albert (and here). This is perfumed and floral. There’s a hint of sweetness but with such mouth-watering acidity that it’s dry enough to serve with savoury food.

Sainsbury’s Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV (£20)

This is fresh and lively with a distinct chalky taste like a good Chablis and a long nutty finish. Good price too and look out for bulk discount offers in the run-up to Christmas (top consumer advice!).

Gonzalez-Byass Dos Palmas Fino NV (Lea & Sandeman £17.95)

Think of this one as Tio Pepe turned up to 11. There’s lots of marmite on the nose and in the mouth it’s fresh and piquant with a distinct taste of almonds. I’d like to drink this at 11am on Christmas morning whilst opening presents.

Sarget de Gruaud Larose 05 (Tanners £35.40)

If you want to treat yourself then this is the wine to do it with. It’s perfectly poised between youthful fruitiness and mature tobacco notes; a real treat for claret lovers.

Exhibition St Aubin 12 (Wine Society £14)

What better wine to serve alongside the claret than a white Burgundy? Initially it’s very fresh, clean and lemony with mouth-watering acidity. But there’s richness here too, a lovely savoury nuttiness starts to build and lingers a while. A subtle wine that gets more interesting with each sip.

Completely off her head on whisky and claret.

Wine articles

Bordeaux: dad wine

Every new generation rebels by rubbishing its parents tastes. Apart from me, that is. My only rebellious act was to not play golf. My grandmother once said to me after my grandfather’s death ‘he (my grandfather) always worried about you not playing golf.’ It was as if ‘not playing golf’ was symptomatic of other great failings.

‘How’s your grandson Henry?’ one could imagine someone asking him at his golf club.

‘He doesn’t play golf, if you know what I mean.’

‘Oh dear, oh dear, a non-golfer in the family. Very rum.’

Anyway Bordeaux. This region is much disparaged by the Young Turks of the wine world. It’s seen as out-of-touch, expensive, elitist etc. Most wine writers define themselves against the great Robert Parker Jnr (not the composer of the Ghostbusters theme tune but the world’s most influential wine writer.) He made his reputation on Bordeaux and made a lot of Bordelais very rich. He’s the daddy of wine so it’s little wonder that people want to rebel by having nothing to do with his favourite region. There’s been some debate about this on the world wide wine web recently. I’m not going to paraphrase the arguments, you can read Jancis Robinson & Jamie Goode on the subject.

I don’t have much to add except to say that I really really like Bordeaux. It was the wine that I was brought up on and the first wine that I learnt to appreciate. The main criticism of this region is that it is now, thanks to Ray Parker Jnr, too expensive for ordinary drinkers. And indeed for the famous names this is true but every so often I come across a really delicious sub £10 claret.  Here’s one:

Chateau Puy Garance 09 – if you’re looking for good value Bordeaux, Cotes-de-Castillon is the place to go. This is amazing stuff with very ripe fruit but then lots of leather and pencil shavings. All this for £6.95 a bottle from the Wine Society. I really cannot think of a better wine for the money. Also pretty good is the Chateau Meaume. I had the 09 recently but I think Majestic are now onto the 10. 

We always drank the house claret when my grandfather took us  for Sunday lunch at the golf club (known as The Club.) It usually consisted of over-cooked roast beef with prawn cocktail to start. The wine wasn’t that good either being thin, underripe stuff of the sort that sent thousands of British drinkers into the arms of Australia and Chile. How much better it would have been if we’d had the Puy Garance. I might have even stayed for a round of golf.

Wine articles

Christmas drinks at the Lady

This is my Lady Christmas wine article that appeared in December’s bumper magazine. You can read their version of it here. If you enjoy it, please write to the Lady’s editor saying that I deserve a pay rise and more space. 

The twin themes of this year’s Christmas column are simplicity and duplicity. In the past I have recommended some expensive wine that I am sure nobody buys and then some cheaper stuff to open when people you don’t like come over. I don’t think that is how most of us do Christmas. So instead I’ve chosen wines for all occasions and all guests. So that’s the simplicity side taken care of. The duplicity part comes because all the wines I have chosen look and taste a lot more expensive that they actually are. Your guests will take a sip and think that you must be terribly successful. The important thing is not to let on how little you’ve spent. If someone comments on how much they must have cost, just wave airily and say ‘you’re worth it, darling.’ With the wines from the big chains, it’s worth checking online before shopping as they often have big temporary discounts before Christmas.

Palataia Pinot Noir 2012 (£8.99 Marks & Spencer)

German pinot noir is not only surprisingly good, it’s also fashionable and expensive. I’m not quite sure how Marks & Spencers do this for the price. There’s some proper pinot fragrance, ripe fruit and most importantly no jam whatsoever. There’s even a nice herbal quality. If you think your guests might be put off by German wine then decant it and pretend it’s Savigny-les-Beaune.

De Martino Chardonnay Legado 2011 (£8.50 the Wine Society)

Many people think they don’t like Chardonnay but in fact they’re just sick of drinking the oversweet, overoaked stuff associated with Bridget Jones*. They should try this cool climate Chilean one which is racy, citric and refreshing.

Marks & Spencer Cava Brut 2010 (£13.99)

Cava is a wine that rarely fails to make me yawn. Not this one! Made by Segura Viudas, it’s the best budget fizz I’ve had all year. There’s a whiff of pastry and then lots of fine bubbles. Best of all, it still has a gentleness that means you can drink it all night.

Waitrose Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut NV (£24.99)

Ignore all those supermarket champagne deals. If you’re not concerned with brands, this is the one to go for. It smells of apples with lemons and nuts on the palate, and a creamy texture.

Quinta do Noval Late Bottled Vintage Unfiltered 2007  (The Drink Shop have the 07 for £16.94 or Tescos have the 05 for £15.79)

A great one to impress any wine bores. They’ll see the name Quinta do Noval, the legendary port estate, and think you’re really spoiling them. This smells brambly with some smoke and spice. It’s sweet but the fruit tastes fresh and crunchy. There’s real concentration here; you could age it but it’s so good now with a nice piece of stilton.

Pedro’s Almacenista Selection Fino (Majestic £8.99)

Here one for the sherry aficionado. It has all the refreshing power of a good fino such as Tio Pepe but with a richness and meatiness that reminded me a little of roast pork. I would drink it before the meal with olives and almonds to sharpen my carnivorous appetites.

I’m now cheating and I’m going to recommend two wines to have if you really have had a successful year or maybe your family have just been extra sweet to you:

Domaine Grand Chardonnay Côtes du Jura 2012 (Berry Bros £13.99)

This part of the world, the Jura, is famed for Vin Jaune which tastes a bit like a farmhouse sherry. They also make more conventional wines that taste like white Burgundy. This one is quite buttery but with a good jolt of acidity and a distinct floral note.

Tassinaia, Castello del Terriccio 2007 (Lea & Sandeman £23.95)

A blend of Cabernet, Merlot and a little Sangiovese, there’s a whiff of pencil shavings, a hint of coffee and some lovely ripe fruit. It’s drinking nicely now but I’d decant to let the tannins soften; a wine so grown-up that it can end long-running family feuds.

*It is now mandatory when writing about chardonnay to mention Bridget Jones just as when writing about sherry you have to mention either maiden aunts or vicars and for cider tramps and teenagers drinking in parks. You can see the Bridget Jones/ chardonnay axis at work in two articles, one in the Telegraph and one in the Guardian

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Is the Wine Society evil?

dr-strangelove_00337070Of course it isn’t! For a start they don’t have a Dr Strangelove-style war room in Stevenage with a world map covering in blinking lights. But if I was an independent wine merchant I wouldn’t be too happy with this institution. The Wine Society has an advantage over most other merchants for two reasons: 1) it has massive buying power being the second (or it might be the third) biggest mail order wine company in the country after Direct Wines (Laithwaite’s et al); 2) it’s a mutual society owned by its members so it doesn’t have to make a profit for shareholders. All the money is ploughed back into the society. In the £6-15 bracket, it cannot be beaten on price. Unlike other wine businesses with huge buying power such as supermarkets and Majestic, it does not discount so the price you see is the best price. I lose track of the number of times I’ve spoken to a wine merchant who has sighed wearily when I’ve pointed out how the Wine Society does it for £2 cheaper.

Where the Wine Society differs from other big institutions, Tesco’s, BBC, Amazon, who make it hard for smaller players is its lack of ambition. Whereas one imagines that Amazon does have a war room with each blinking light representing a bookshop to be snuffed out, the Wine Society are not planning to sell every bottle of wine in the UK and then Ireland and then Europe. They’re expanding very slowly. Nevertheless they do undoubtedly take business from smaller merchants and if I was a wine merchant I would avoid stocking anything that the Wine Society also stocks. As a wine writer whose readers are interested in value – I’ve been told off by the editor of the Lady for recommending anything too expensive – it’s often very hard not to write about them. It doesn’t help matters that their PR people are so good, their staff so nice and don’t get me started on the vast sums they pay me to write for their newsletter. Because of this temptation to stick with what I know, I make a conscious effort to sniff out interesting wine from small merchants. Not out of any patronising notion that I should support indies but because it keeps the column interesting. The reason I don’t feature many wines from supermarkets is not because they are big but because they’re not very interesting to write about.

One merchant, Red Squirrel Wines, has gone further and thinks that writers should not feature wines from the Society at all because it is a club. He likens a wine columnist featuring the Wine Society to a restaurant critic writing about Annabel’s. It’s a funny comparison but doesn’t really bear a closer look. To join Annabel’s you need a proposer, a seconder and then your membership application is put before a committee. You also need to pay £1000 to join and £1000 a year thereafter. Anyone can join the Wine Society for £40, you don’t even need a friend to propose you. If you’re interested in wine, then it’s not a big outlay. By Mr Red Squirrel’s logic, a television reviewer shouldn’t write about programs on Sky as you need to subscribe in order to watch them. 

Even if the Wine Society was as exclusive as Annabel’s, I might still like to read about it. I read restaurant reviews of places that my only chance of getting a table would be to sleep with the maitre d’ – and be really good.  I read Jancis Robinson’s vertical tasting of Sassicaia. I watch Jeremy Clarkson driving very expensive cars very very fast. I read about lots of things that I cannot or have no intention of sampling. One of the reasons that wine columns can be dull is that they’re perceived as shopping lists rather than entertainment.

Wine articles

Wine of the Week: Rigal Malbec L’ Instant Truffier 2011









A few years back I met the late Sebastian Horsley for lunch at the Lorelei cafe in Soho. We were there to discuss publicity for his forthcoming memoir, ‘Dandy in the Underworld.’ He waved at the menu dismissively and said: ‘it doesn’t matter what you order here, it all tastes the same.’ I was beginning to feel the same about the wine at Majestic: no matter what I bought, it all tasted the same. It was as if Majestic were using the Winemerchant 2000 ® (originally developed by Laithwaite’s) whereby an entire world of wines can created from an industrial estate in Bedford. They start with a base wine and then add ‘Real Languedoc Garrique’ or ‘Classic Rioja-style’ vanilla extract.

Perhaps it was my fault for being tempted by their special offers. Chianti Riserva at only £5.99 really was too good to be true. I had tried asking the staff for recommendations but these always turned out to be equally lacklustre. Perhaps they had gauged me as one of those customers who like their wines ‘smooth’ and would be put off by anything too interesting. After one too many disappointments, I’d stopped visiting my local branch in Shoreditch. But then we ran out of everyday wine, it was too late for a Wine Society delivery so I went back.

There was some late 90s house music pumping out of the speakers. It was about noon. Over the din, I asked the manager to suggest something red, cheap and Southern French and he suggested this malbec (I know more malbec, it’s as if I’m in the pay of the powerful malbec lobby.) This wine is all about fragrance, it’s floral, ripe and not heavy, it takes well to a light chilling, but there’s also a firmness at the end to let you know that you’re in Gascony. It’s made by a well-known Cahors producer but for reasons known only to the French it’s a Cotes du Lot rather than a Cahors. It’s not a complicated wine so I can’t think of anymore to say about it except buy lots and drink. Oh and it’s on special offer for only £6.99 a bottle. Sometimes those offers aren’t too good to be true.

Just in case anyone’s lawyers are reading I’m not claiming that Laithwaite’s and Majestic wines are concocted on an industrial estate in Bedford only that some of them taste as if they are. 

Wine articles

Wine of the Week: Weinert Carrascal 2007

My late year resolution is to be more reactive to what’s going on in the wine world (and less reactionary towards everything else). If the main topic of debate is ‘whither the natural cork’ then I’m going to chip in with my tuppence worth. This also means that my recommendations will occasionally coincide with wines that are on offer.

Last night I opened a bottle of Weinert Carrascal 2007 when my old friend , Tom, came over for supper. He’s fond of wines that are a little bit stinky, wines with a bit of character but that don’t cost the earth. Argentina is not normally a happy hunting ground for such things.  In my, admittedly  rather limited experience, Argentine wines tend to be very ripe and sleek, very influenced by top French oenologist Michel Rolland, but not terribly exciting. It’s a shame because I used to drink a lot of Argentine wines in the early 00s. To my untutored palate they had a character that their Chilean cousins lacked. Now the two countries seem to have swapped places with the Chileans making some distinctive wines whilst the Argentines make soupy monsters in the international style.

At Cavas de Weinert they do things differently. All wines are aged in enormous old oak barrels and only released when ready to drink. They’re more like an old-school rioja bodega than a sleek new world winery. The wines are also absurdly cheap. I paid £7.50 for the Carrascal 07 – a blend of Cabernet, Malbec and Merlot – from the Wine Society, Majestic currently have the 06 on offer for £6.49 when you buy two. The one we had last night smelled damp and woody, a little like an old cellar. It tasted leathery but with masses of very ripe fruit. There quite a bit of tannic grip but age has mellowed it. It reminded me simultaneously of a nice claret and a traditional Chianti Riserva from a good producer only with much more fruit. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but it’s a lot of wine for the money. Tom is now calling it the Funky Mendoza which makes it sound like a dance craze from the 60s.

Please feel free to write in to contradict me on Argentine wines.

Wine articles Wine of the week

Wine of the Week: Barbera d’ Asti Superiore ‘Le Amandole’ Gonella 2009

My wine of the week you probably cannot get hold of easily. I bought it in the Cave de Pyrene sale last week. I ordered some wines pretty much at random, nothing too expensive, nothing too old, and this was the pick of the bunch. Barbera from Piedmont, home of Barberesco and Barolo, may just be my favourite affordable wine. In the right hands it bursts with fruit and freshness, and always with a bitter edge that makes it interesting. This one is a bit of a bruiser. It smells of cooked plums, leather with a trace of vanilla, in the mouth there’s quite a bit of tannin, lots of acidity and then some lovely dark cherry fruit. There’s also some coffee and chocolate but don’t worry, it’s not that sort of wine! It’s also 15% but you wouldn’t notice when sipping it. I drank about half a bottle last night with my wife’s secret recipe meatballs (veal is the secret). It only cost me £7.20 so go and fill your boots. Except of course you can’t because they’re all sold out.

The reason I’m recommending a wine you can’t buy is because wines like this do appear occasionally. All you have to do is befriend wine merchants. I still get a shiver of excitement thinking of the haul of mature Alsace Rieslings from Paul Blanck and Morgons from JM Burgaud I bought for next to nothing in a Jeroboams sale a few years back. I had more cash then so bought cases of the stuff. Wine in this country is expensive because of  VAT, duty and bad exchange rates (I keep a copy of the 2008 Wine Society catalogue just so I can have a weep over the prices.) Your local wine merchant isn’t trying to rip you off. Keep in with him, buy when you can, get on the mailing list and every so often you will be rewarded with a bargain. Tanners have a sale on until 1st October. Go mad, fill your boots!

Wine articles

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 articles

Corner Shop Wine Challenge

Due to lack of funds, I have not been buying my regular cases of wine from Majestic or the Wine Society. As a result I am often caught out with no ordinary wine in the house so have to visit my local shop. Recently I’ve had a Lindemans Cawarra Cabernet Merlot – a bit grim, Wolf Blass Shiraz – tasted like an alcopop and a £2.99 Montepulciano d’ Abrruzzo – just about palatable chilled with spicy food. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was something wonderful that I had missed? So for the inaugural meeting of my wine club, I decided that we should do ‘the corner shop challenge’. Guests were asked to bring a bottle from a corner shop for not more than £7 (everyone including me ignored this rule).

Planning the evening I turned to Michael Broadbent’s invaluable Wine Tasting for help: ‘do not underestimate the number of people required to help, from supervisor to coat attendant. Numbers and quality of staff will, of course, depend on the nature of the event, it size and the place.’ The staff turned out to be variable. One of them worked hard all day cleaning and preparing delicious snacks for the guests. The other got drunk and droned on and on about his failure to find a publisher for his book

Wine 1 – Yellow label Riesling, Wolf Blass, 2006 – £8.49 (the label was smudged – I thought it said £6.49)

Despite my years of drinking and reading about wine plus two years in the trade, I have never been able to shrug off the childish notion than an old wine is a good wine. When I go into a shop I wonder what dusty gems might be lurking on the shelves rather than thinking logically about what poor storage conditions do to a wine especially ones designed to be drunk young. I hoped that the Wolf Blass would have become honeyed and nutty like a Pewsey Vale Riesling I had a few years back. The colour was pretty, yellow/ green and it smelt like mature Riesling (albeit not a very good one). Sadly on the palate it was clear that it was past it: very little fruit, not much acidity and no honey or nuts. Boo!

Wine 2 – Fleurie, Louis Jolimont, 2009

Cheap commercial Beaujolais is one of the worst wines known to man so from very low expectation this was surprisingly nice. No strange confected taste, no high alcohol without any flavour. Instead it was light, refreshing and a bit bland – like reasonable cheap Beaujolais if not a lot like Fleurie.

Wine 3 – Rioja Reserva, Campo Viejo, 2006 – £10.50

Rioja is a good standby in a corner shop or a supermarket as it is so rarely bad. This one was, however , a disappointment: much too soft and smooth with no bite whatsoever and none of the perfume that you would hope for in an over £10 Reserva. This was like a Rioja-flavoured soup.

Wine 4 – Fantasia Torrontes, Bodegas Lorca, 2009

One of my guests arrived a little worse for wear clutching this bottle he had won in a raffle. This fitted in with the spirit if not the letter of my rules for the evening so I let him in. Torrontes is an Argentine grape that is, I think, related to Muscat. It can be a little cloying but this was nice – slightly sweet, aromatic and refreshing if a little dilute.

Wine 5 – Casillero del Diablo Pinot Noir 2010 – £6.99

I like this one; it’s simple, meaty and delicious chilled with none of the jamminess that you can get in cheap Pinot Noirs. Not one to pontificate over but definitely the best wine of the night until we opened the. . .

Wine 6 – Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr, Riesling Auslese, Weingut Max Ferd Richter, 2003, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer

Blimey what a mouthful! This was the reward to my guests for having braved the mean streets of Bethnal Green to taste such dull wines. Quick explanation of the name, the first part is the name of the vineyard, the second is the grape variety, Auslese means that it was made from specially-selected late harvest grapes which were full of sugar. Then you have the producer and finally the area in Germany where it comes from.

Obviously this was in a different league to the others. It was the only one where people actually stopped gossiping to savour the wine. This smelt of petrol and limes. It had a similar colour to the Wolf Blass but it seemed to glow and shimmer. On the palate it was very full-bodied, sweet, but not incredibly sweet like a Sauternes, with toasty notes. A lovely drop but certainly not great. It was missing that electric charge of acidity that you should get from the best German Riesling – it was a little flabby. The incredible heat of the 2003 vintage might be to blame for this lack of structure or perhaps being kept for five years in the back of my cupboard.

My conclusions for the evening:

1) When in a corner shop buy the youngest wine you can find preferably from one of the big Chilean brands such as Casillero del Diablo or Cono Sur.

2) Better yet just buy a case from the Wine Society. For £7 you can get something worth discussing, for £10 something sublime.

3) Don’t organise a wine tasting around boring wines.

All wines without links should be widely available apart from the Fleurie which is a bit of a mystery. The 03 Auslese might be a bit hard to track down.

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The best old socks in France

One of the most bittersweet aspects of reading old books about wine is the suggestions for good areas to bargain hunt. In The Daily Telegraph Guide to the Pleasures of Wine by Denis Morris I came across the following: ‘Hermitage both for drinking and keeping is another long-lasting wine of interest to the man of limited means.’ The other underpriced area he recommends is Pomerol.

Morris’s book was published in 1972. Oh to have been alive then! Since then these wines have become highly sought after. No need to be too nostalgic, however, because we are now living in a golden age for those willing to take a few risks. There are wines outside the classic regions that are the modern day equivalent of Morris’s Hermitage. My favourite hunting ground for such wines is the Languedoc specifically Faugeres. This tiny AOC near Montpellier makes the best value fine wines in the world.

Like most reds from the South of France, Faugeres is made from a blend of syrah, grenache, carignan, mouvedre and cinsault. It is difficult to generalise about them as they are made in different styles. There are not many producers and the wines are cheap so one could very quickly become an armchair expert on this region. These are my three favourite domaines:

Domaine Alquier: the first Faugeres I ever tried was their Les Bastides 2003. Unlike many premium wines, it wasn’t smothered in new oak or over-extracted. It was perfumed and silky with some sweet but not jammy fruit . It was almost how one hopes Burgundy is going to taste but rarely does. The Bastides is about £15 but they do cheaper wines which are also very good available from the Wine Society.

Domaine Leon Barral: if Alquier is the Burgundy of Faugeres then this is the Bordeaux. They tend to be dark, meaty and serious. M. Barral farms organically and favours non-interventionist wine-making. Available from Bottle Apostle.

Domaine du Meteore: astonishing value for money. Their Les Leonides 2006 costs under £10 a bottle. My wife says that it smells like old socks, the most delicious old socks in all of France. These are pungent, distinctive wines which it is not hard to develop a taste for. Available from the Sampler.

I think there is one co-op in Faugeres which is very reliable. In fact I don’t think I have ever had a bad one. There is also a twin appellation next door called Saint Chinian which offer similar quality. And then there are Montpeyroux, Pic Saint Loup and La Clape. It’s an exciting time to be poor and adventurous. Go and buy before everyone else finds out about them.