Monday, 16 May 2011

Wine highs and lows

It's rare for wine to make it into mainstream news, but it has made a couple of daring incursions from its home in the food and drink pages in recent weeks.

One was to highlight the incredible prices being touted for Bordeaux's latest in a growing list of “vintage of the century” - 2010 in this case. Forget belt-tightening and talk of recession, the Bordelais can sell all they want of these super-premium liquid status symbols to cash-rich investors and just plain rich Far East wine lovers – even at £1,000 a bottle. That's a bottle.

No wine can ever truly be “worth” £1,000. And the sad thing is, these precious commodities may never actually be drunk, merely traded and sold on over the years in order to realise a profit. What a fate to befall a drink that is made to give pleasure – although financial gain can bring pleasure in its own way.

The second wine ripple in the news pond was caused by the results of an “experiment” at the Edinburgh Science festival, where wine drinkers were asked whether they thought the wine they were tasting cost under £5, or between £10 and £30 a bottle. Overall, most people were right only half the time – which suggests that they were either guessing at random, or that most people truly can't tell the difference between the posh and the plonk.

We have our own perspective on this story. A popular format for the wine tastings we run is a blind tasting, where our guests can't see the identity of the wines they are drinking. And a popular question is to ask if people can spot a more expensive wine. We do this, not simply to identify the cheap dates in the group (though that is useful to know), but to see which wines people really prefer, when they can't see the label.

Very generally speaking, there's a 50/50 split between those preferring the posh stuff to the everyday. Heather D's highly unscientific conclusion is that it is mostly guided by familiarity. If someone is used to drinking classed growth claret, they are going to be attuned to its characters and be able to spot them in a blind tasting. If they are more used to full-on, straightforwardly fruity wines that you can pick up for around a fiver, again they will recognize those same characters blind. And probably react with horror and face-pulling at the level of tannin and lack of overt fruit in a “posher” wine that costs many times more.

So what are we to make of all this? Is it pointless for us to spend more than £10 on any bottle of wine? We can't really tell the difference and the most expensive stuff has more in common with a piece of fine art than it does with anything that you might actually drink.

Looking to the positive, there are plenty of wines to be had for under £10 that are actually undervalued. Look for the out of fashion, the unfamiliar and, mostly, the Old World for value for money refreshment over the summer months.

Sherry has got to take the biscuit in the value for money stakes. These fortified wines take years to produce and have a unique combination of flavours that can't be found elsewhere. Banish thoughts of dusty bottles of sweet brown gloop and grab a bottle of Fino or Manzanilla – the lightest bodied, palest coloured and driest sherries of all. Some salted almonds, a few tapas and an ice cold glass of this and you could be in sunny Andalusia instead of Surrey.

Sainsbury's Manzanilla Superior is practically given away at £5.49 a bottle.
Waitrose have the iconic Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla on special offer at just £6.99 a bottle until 24th May.

In the same, whiff of bracing sea air vein as dry sherry, Muscadet can make a perfect aperitif wine, or is wonderful with white fish or mussels.

Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine sur lie 2009/10, Domaine de la Tourmaline - £6.99, down to £6.49 when you buy two bottles at Majestic is a good example of the combination of tangy acidity and ripe, slightly tropical fruit style of modern Muscadet. A must for a plate of moules marinières.

Like Muscadet, you might reach for a bottle of this only if you're pulling on your Top Gun jumpsuit and aviator glasses, en route to an Eighties party. But overcome your aversion and you'll find Beaujolais has much to offer and makes perfect summer drinking, especially chilled on a summer evening. Its soft, cherry-raspberry fruit is super with some rustic charcuterie, beret and string of onions optional.

Hospices de Beaujeu Beaujolais Villages 2009/10 is also on special offer at Waitrose for £5.99 until 24th May. Its gentle tannins and exuberant fruit make it a great match for cold meats and duck with Asian flavours.

Southern Rhône
We've all heard of Chateauneuf du Pape – but be prepared to part with at least £15 a bottle and, all too often, prepare to be disappointed. The value in this region is to be found in outlying areas that don't trip off the tongue in quite the same way, such as the Costières de Nîmes. The grape varieties are familiar, even if the region isn't – Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, sometimes a little Carignan. The whiff of the wild herbs of the garrigue, a twist of black olive, ripe, spicy black fruit – and voilà, southern France in a glass.

Château Mourgues du Grès, Les Galets Rouges 2009, £8.84 from Les Caves de Pyrène of Artington, Guildford has all the herby, black fruit you could wish for – great for serving alongside a classy barbecue banger.