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Supermarket Picks

By mthomas

People often ask me what my picks from supermarket shelves are. As a Psychologist I am generally opposed to giving advice because it is often a poisoned chalice. I also don’t particularly like helping supermarkets shift wine and generally prefer supporting smaller independent outfits. However, there are some really decent wines available on the shelves and some of them are made by thoughtful and skilled producers. So, here are some I think of as good value for money (i.e. technically sound, relatively cheap and probably enjoyable for most drinkers). They can often be found in more than one supermarket and prices vary depending on offers etc.

For fizz Cremant de Jura Chardonnay 2010 £6.99 from Aldi is hard to beat. If you want the real stuff Blanc de Noirs Brut Champage £22 Sainsbury’s ticks my boxes (especially when discounted).

For whites I really like M and S. Their Palataia Pinot Grigio (with a bit of Pinot Bianco), a refreshing, tangy and easy-drinking example from Pfalz £8.49. M and S also stock a great alternative to NZ Sauvignon Blanc; Secano Sauvignon Gris £9. It’s made from an ‘interesting’ and under utilised grape and is very consistent across vintages. However, the outstanding supermarket white has to be Hatzadakis Assyrtiko Waitrose £12. Whenever they discount by 25% for 6 bottles (as they are at the moment) I buy this wine because it is ‘great’ in every sense of the word. A really fine wine with a wonderful heritage, it slips down as an aperitif, goes with food and can spend a bit of time in the cellar doing interesting things. All for £10 a bottle.

I don’t think there is an equivalent ‘great’ red but there are some really pleasing gluggers out there. I often wax lyrical about various Chilean Pinots inc. pretty much all the Cono Sur range which Burgundy simply can’t compete with under £10. France can do it in other areas though and there are lots of decent reds from the Languedoc and Rhone. Villages Seguret Cotes du Rhone 2011 Morrisons £5.99 is a crowd pleaser. I often recommend Vina Mayu Sangiovese Asda £5.50 but it seems to be getting a bit oakier which I don’t really like (but lots of people do). I could mention a few Malbecs but am finding the bog standard supermarket versions a increasingly tedious. However, there is no doubting Argentina, like Chile offers value. If anyone knows a decent Italian red outside Italy for under a tenner do let me know.

My number one supermarket tip at the moment would be… Sherry! Asda Fino at £5.50 is a steal and the rest of the range is worth trying to find the one you like (you will like one!). Sherry is deeply unpopular with most people and a hard product to shift despite its high quality. Supermarket buyers seem to like it though and take it seriously. The new wave of sherry bars opening in London and the consistent whispering of the cognoscenti are yet to impact on popularity (and prices) though so fill your boots whilst you can.



Wine Descriptions Too Flowery…

By mthomas

‘New research’ by Laithwaites found that a 1,000 “reasonably well-informed about wine” participants said that many descriptions in 43 tasting notes from leading wine brands and critics were not that helpful.  The worst included “firm skeleton” with 37% of respondents finding it unhelpful and “nervy” 31%. Other less-than-helpful terms included: “wet stone” (27%); “tongue spanking” (21%), “haunting” (21%), “spring hedgerows” (19%) and “brooding” (18%) as well as “vegetal”, “leathery”, “chunky” and “minerality”. The latter term is especially contentious not only in terms of the taste it describes but also because of the debates about transmission of minerals from earth to grape to wine. I find it quite useful but acknowledge that it is a slightly nebulous and overused descriptor.

Huw Johnson has suggested Anne Noble’s aroma wheel has introduced a formulaic element to tasting. It is essentially a ‘taxonomy of flavours in wine’ so this is the point of it. It is a useful tool in wine education, it stimulates discussion and exploration. The issue is that it is not that widely used and even less understood. It has to be combined with an understanding of individuality and taste profiles to really add value for consumers. I would also argue that it should expand to include many more descriptors such as the ‘exotic fruits’ and mushroom tastes being used by some  critics so that notes are meaningful for a South East Asian audience.

Interestingly, in the Laithwaite’s study “Fresh” was regarded as the most useful word, along with “zesty”. Both possibly relate to people who like acidity. They find these words signpost wines that suit them and both are handy euphemisms where ‘acid’ might have unwanted connotations. I think “peachy” comes out well because it is a popular and well known fruit associated with summer but it also has other meanings which are positive e.g. ‘good’ and ‘sexy’.  Whereas ‘vegetal’ which I sometimes find a positive quality in reds has less positive connotations and might suffer because of this rather than any descriptive utility.  My guess is that this was a major confounding variable in this study. People simply like some words more than others.

Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, who consults for Laithwaite’s, points out that the subjective nature of taste makes the results ‘unsurprising’ but then goes on to suggest; “We have probably been guilty ourselves of using overblown language in the past but this is a wake-up call to the whole wine industry to make a change.” But, surely the answer is not to ‘dumb down’ but to help people understand their own tastes and the taste and language profiles of critics.

Andrew Jefford in Decanter has argued that while “a well written tasting note has practical worth”, even established writers are capable of turning out, “inadequate, boring, incoherent or risible notes”. Jefford is probably one of the most ‘flowery’ of critics. He uses a highly technical language and is prone to metaphor. Personally I am all for this approach. I can often work out what the wine he is describing would taste like to me because I have read lots of his notes and tasted lots of the same wines. I have got benchmarks and this is what we should be encouraging people to develop.

The ‘flowery’ approach can be amusing, creative and really useful but is not an approach that sits well on the back of a bottle. Given what we know about decision-making when buying, wine retailers will increasingly use those descriptors which stimulate purchases rather than those which really inform the diversity of ways in which the wine in the bottle might be experienced by different individuals. This is a shame.