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Tuesday 1 February 2005

Budget wine tasting night [Lurks]

Well, the blog title is a bit misleading really. It's more like, "let's get stuck into the el-cheapo £4 a bottle" plonk that my dearest wife added to our Tesco online order on the basis of our frugal saving strategy.
Now here's the thing, I'm not that fussy right. I mean my favorite wine can be had for about £8 in a supermarket so I'm not exactly auditioning for Sideways right? So far there's pretty much not been a bottle of wine bad enough that I wouldn't drink it. This evening, all that changed.
We started off with a bit of Californian Ernest & Julio Gallo 'Turning Leaf' cabernet sauvignon. This is not exactly lighting my fire but it's drinkable. Eg it's a red wine which doesn't make you retch and it's got alcohol in it. Bit of a win really. Fine. Let's call this a 4/10.
Then we opened a bottle of something called 35 South, a 2004 cab sauv shiraz blend. I just popped the cork and sat back down with the missus to pour while we're watching the latest episode of 24. I drink, I dunno, maybe half a glass. All the way frowning, unsure if it's the tense plot or the awful wine as to the cause of my stress, initially, but over time it becomes clear. This superb demonstration of au de plonk has the finest distinction of being, as far as I can recall, the first ever bottle of wine which - after some frugal discussions with the better half - we mutually decided to tip our glasses away and maybe use what was left in the bottle for cooking. Let's call that a 2/10. From the back of the bottle:

On the palate, the varieties blend well, both with ripe tannins, medium body, good depth and ferret's piss.

Okay, I made the last bit up.
We've having a laugh by now so we get down the next bottle from the Tescos miser's lottery. This one is a 2000 cab sauv from the Dealul Mare region of Romania called Prahova Valley Reserve. Now we're wine tasting, this time we tip a bit into the glasses and take a whiff of the nose. Now, I'm actually expecting this to be good right. On the basis that I've never really tipped wine away before for being undrinkable and so statisically, at least, this one is bound to be a cracker right? Lurks, you were wrong. (rustling sounds as money changes hands on that bet) The nose on this wine smelt actually 'off' to me. It smelt like surgical spirits and sour milk, if this is possible. I'm sure that I'm getting this wrong so I hestitate for awhile and actually the wife tastes first and declares it bad, nuclear bad. I fail to believe her and take the plunge. This wine, my friends, made the 35 South look like 100 North by comparison. I cannot with words, describe how bad this wine was. This was not fit to scrub our fat-splattered cooker top with. It went straight down the sink and even while it glugged obscenely in transit, I felt sorry for the bacteria around the u-bend. Oh we're talking 1/10 here, no mistake. From the back of the bottle:

The Cabernet Sauvignon has found a natural home in the sunny Sub-Carpathian Hills of Dealu Mare. HEre it produces full bodied wines with aromas of tabacco, green bell peppers and and rancid mouldy-arsed llama carcasses.

Again I made the necessary editorial changes.
On to our third bottle, I found that my taste buds were so insensed by this affront that I couldn't work out exactly how bad the caberna sauvignon shiraz 'Calloway Cross' was. It was bad though, but sort of non-descriptly bad in a way that didn't make me beg to chuck it down the sink but surely there was precious little chance of drinking it now. It got carefully re-corked, okay well truth be told the cheap tin cap was rescrewed, and placed back on the shelf should I ever need to rescue a man on the street with a rare blood discorder that requires immediate transfusion with cheap alcohol in order to survive.
Also on the shelf was another bottle of the Turning Leaf that started this all off. Drinkable, we slunk back to this, tail between legs. Cheap though they might be, for the cost of the two mercifully executed bottles of £4 throat irritant, we could have bought a single bottle of something bloody superb instead.
Lesson learned, I feel although I cannot help but think that I shall have recurring nightmares concerning the real cork that surprisingly came out from the Prahova Valley and the ominous 'Romanian Fine Wines' stamp ironically taunting us from the exposed length.
Next time in order to save money, we shall simple buy one bottle of decent wine and mix one part in two with something less objectionable such as leftover PC water cooling anti-freeze solution.


  1. This is absolutely a scenario I can sympathise with.
    Its documented fact that Lurks, Am & I are vocal proponents of the Wolf Blass range - for just over £8 you can pick up a bottle of their famously fabulous 'Yellow Label', which is guaranteed to lube your epiglottis to the point of tastebud orgasm. Which isn't bad.
    Usually I grab a bottle from either the recently opened M&S (better selection) or the neighbouring Sainsburys (cheaper) - both of which are conveniently between my place of work and the tube home.
    My rule of thumb is this: When buying wine under a fiver, never trust any bottle who's label claims to be 'the perfect accompaniment to [insert meat]'. An example - 'Tandoori Nights', (M&S £2.76 a bottle) tasted like a half hearted mix of artificially enhanced strawberry syrup and diarrhea. Another one (a Chardonnay of uncertain vintage) claimed to be the 'ideal partner for white meats and lamb'. So, practically everything then - and had a screw top lid - dear readers, never ever ever buy wine with a screw top lid unless you are planning on getting mashed for under a fiver and don't care about your innards, or are cooking a large casserole... and don't care about your innards.
    Sainsburys offer a range of Italian wines (which in fairness have enough Italian on the label to convince your average punter that they weren't brewed in Putney) starting with the cheeky 'Nabocia' (£3.70 a bottle and spelling uncertain) which has a wierd purple top on it that was presumably designed to scream out visually from amongst the racks of neighbouring bottles. The first glass was actually not half bad, which I put down to the wine being cold and me still stressed from a shitty day at work. The second glass, once the laws of thermodynamics had kicked in, revealed the true nature of the bottle - imagine putting your head in a bag which had previously been filled with farts, and inhaling.
    Like Lurks, I tipped it away - pondering at the science required to generate a liquid with the capability to smell & taste like it did, and still remain available for human consumption. There should be an inquiry, and the company behind the wine should be drowned in it.
    I could go on, but there are too many stories and not enough internet to spin them on - but remember this; one man's liquified shit-in-a-bottle is another's Krug '65. Just keep it the fuck away from me :)

  2. I tend to play it safe and avoid the really cheap stuff, because quite frankly it's usually vulgar. I know there are a few bargains to be had under a fiver, but as you discovered, you'll end up buying a bunch of undrinkable stuff before you hit something decent, and at that point you've spent more than you would on something you knew was good...
    Avoiding anything from eastern Europe is also wise. They fortify their red wines with bull urine, or something.
    The saving grace of red wine, of course, is that unless it's pure fucking vinegar (and some of the stuff out there is, no mistake) then even a pretty unpleasant bottle isn't a dead loss - you can recork and leave it next to the cooker for splashing around in anything with red meat in it. This really is a bonus when you consider dilemmas in other areas of boozing - I've yet to work out what on earth I can do with some of the utterly undrinkable bottles of scotch I've experimentally acquired. :)

  3. All screwtops are bad? Snobbish bollocks. Screw tops are better than corks these days, and far more wine producers are realising that. They're not the majority, yet, but there's loads of very good quality screwtopped wines out there now and they don't suffer from the 10% 'corked' problem of traditionally stoppered bottles. The only problem screw tops have to get over is ignorance. They've always been on the cheapest wine, but that doesn't mean a screw top makes a wine cheap.
    As for Wine under a fiver, I find tescos own brand Chilian Reds are drinkable. There's some Cape stuff that's not to bad for the price either. It's a gamble though for sure, but once you find one buy lots, the cost savings worth the effort.

  4. A subject which I admit I have some passing interest in just occasionally....
    Paying £8 for a bottle of wine may seem a lot but is actually a very wise choice in terms of quality per pound spent. This is because many of the costs of your fine vinous friend in front of you are of course fixed; Baseline tax duty on wine is about £1.20 a bottle minimum and with VAT you end up giving the chancellor £1.66 per bottle before you find out if it's filled with anti-freeze or Petrus. On top of this the costs of the bottle, cork, labelling etc are consistent at about 50p and up. So £2.20 odd of the bottle is absolutely non-negotiable cost before the retailer's mark up to say a minimum of £3. It stands to reason that with almost zero to literally a few pennies of a £3 bottle of wine going to the grower and the grapes that it is utter poison.
    Once you get to £5 a bottle, the increase in tax is only another 30p which leaves £1.70 to share out for quality and mark up. A mind-boggilingly huge improvement. So really £5 is the minimum you can expect to pay for a bottle of wine all told. Once you get here you have to think to yourself - for the price of one pint in London I can upgrade this wine to something twice as good at around £8 a bottle. The difference, imho on a bottle at £8 and £5 makes forgoing that pint a very good exercise in drinking pleasure.
    As to finding good wines in the area, I cannot overemphasise my top tip; Oddbins. Winner of the best UK off-license chain six (perhaps seven) years running by now, you can pick almost anything off the shelves in oddbins and get a bloody good bottle of wine. The same cannot be said for Victoria Wine or Thresher in any way shape or form. The staff at Oddbins are also always without fail very knowledgeable about wine. Listening to their recommendations will often get you a great bottle. Suspect areas? I've always thought their Spanish line is pretty weak with the generally dreadful value for money Faustino wines (hugely over-priced for what they are (not very good)) in significant presence.
    Wolf Blass are a quality outfit who of the major producers chuck out quality without fail where others cannot be said to do so. Some of Penfolds can be pretty good - Koonunga Hill for instance - but a lot of it huge volume / not very good compared to things at the same price that sit next to them in an oddbins. They do however do a great Chardonnay at £8.99 called Thomas Hyland which Matthew Dukes (Mail writer - good knowledgeable bloke) said at a tasting I went to that he thought they'd completely screwed the pricing on it and would have sold a bucket at £19.99!
    Beyond that I would definitely recommend some Peter Lehmann stuff at 8/9 quid a bottle. Another big producer but capable of turning out wines in good years that cap the other big boys. Beyond that again and another notch up in quality on the reds I would say d'Arenberg are the real McCoy. Some real quality stuff here. A great taste-off would be a couple of bottles of Wolf, Lehmann and D'Arenberg at about the £8/£9 mark. I reckon there'd be a few converts...
    Of course all the above are ozzie but then at this price tbh they're the best in the world. You'll search for a very long time to successfully find french red that beats it - of course it certainly exists and no-one will ever out-do the french for sheer quality and structure but it's an exercise of fumbling in the dark to find them. I find drinking French very frustrating. If you get introduced to the right French it'll kill anything in sight but - how to find it? Merde!
    As for white's - again - Oddbins do some cracking stuff from Ozz and NZ including the very fine Nepenthe range (really lovely made stuff - the sort of wine that shows why the winemaker is really important) and my terrible weaknesses - the Montana Ormond Estate Chard and Petaluma Chardonnay. Unparalleled gorgeousness for those bad days when £12 or £14 for a bottle is "justifiable" as "won't have 2 pints in the pub". But that really does show you what value you get.
    Last fing - the days of dodgy cap-tops are firmly over. Listening to Matthew Dukes this year on the subject he did convince me that this is definitely the way to go for anything under £20. Some of the finest wines I've had this past year have been under screw-top including mind-blowing Tim Adams Shiraz (Tesco) and very very fine Nepenthe stuff. Something like 12% of wines are corked - it's just the vast majority of them are mildly corked and come out as "a bit flat / bit muted / doesn't seem the same as last time" rather than the reeking really-corked smell that is obvious. Screw-top for anything other than reds which have to mature for a long time is definitely the win now - wines are fresher and consistent across the board. As opposed to say 18 months ago if I'm really pissed off on the day and the wine has to be right cos it's the only one I'm taking home and I'll go postal if it's corked, well these days I now reach for the screw-cap wine in the £8/£9 range five times out of five.And all the wine houses are experimenting with screw-tops for laid-down wines. Once it's seen what it does to the progress of maturing, it could be that cork's time is numbered even at the top other than wherever local political pressure (Portugal for instance) means it would be impossible to drop mother nature's nicely tactile but rather flawed closure....

  5. Not being one that drinks alot of wine, I've the past year or so discovered a couple of wines that even I like.
    First out is a spanish red wine from the Navarra district, Las Campanas. This one comes in two flavours, Crianza (1999) and Reserva (1997), and are both blends of tempranillo and chabernet sauvignon grapes. The Ciranza is a bit cheaper than the Reserva, but the reserva costs about 10 quid over here. I think the Reserva is the best of the two, but both are quite nice.
    Next out is a Wolf Blass, the Eaglehawk Shiraz, at approx 8 quid. Suitable for a meal with red meat. Noticed Am praised the Wolf Blass Yellow Label, and will make sure to pick one up and try it out.

  6. Eaglehawk is the budget brand from Wolf Blass. That Eaglehawk Shiraz goes for about £5-6 here. If that's eight quid in Norway then you're getting robbed. Probably means you're going to pay over 10 quid for a yellow label! The Eaglehawk is still quite drinkable. Hmm, all this blogging has made me want to head over to majestic and pick up some bottles. Best company ever, that.

  7. four quid is too much to spend on wine for me. i average three quid and sometimes two quid or two-fifty. i have never failed to finish a bottle. you are southern jessies with too much money and overdeveloped palates! (i am having to re-type most of this several times as i finish off last night's Margaret Island (2003) from Sainsbury's). check out Iris Murdoch's 'The Sea, the Sea': buying expensive wine is a flagrant waste of an undeveloped palate and appreciation of cheap wine (I paraphrase here).
    there ain't nothing wrong with Margaret Island! Who are you anyway, Jancis Robinson, HA HA HA?
    Bet i could have tolerated (and finished) both bottles. Must go on the wagon soon (note to self).

  8. To be perfectly honest, if you are happy spending two pounds on a bottle of 'wine' then fair play; in my experience however you may as well be drinking meths.
    Still, you come across as a fairly affable alcoholic, so bottoms up!

  9. At two to three pounds a bottle of wine you're only talking about ways of getting pissed for the least amount of money possible. As wine it's dreadful compared to the pleasure good wine can deliver you. But that choice is yours to make of course - I just wouldn't dress it up with aka "the difference isn't worth the money" because that argument is not true at all. Argue it for getting pissed at value for money then I'm with you. But the no-difference argument is laughable.
    Iris Murdoch was a notorious slob as well as a very fine writer. This from an excerpt from A.N. Wilson;
    "What cannot be disputed is the weirdness of the Bayley-Murdoch household. By all accounts, the couple were spectacularly dirty, neither of them showing any interest in household duties, either inside or outside the house. Indeed, when statues were vandalised in their overgrown garden, to Murdoch’s great distress, friends wondered how she could tell. Both she and Bayley were careless regarding personal hygiene and would accept any invitation to eat out to save them the bother of cooking. On the plus side, they were generous with the wine, though its quality was unremarkable. Quantity was the principal concern."
    If you want to be a dirty ol' giffer drinking shit wine it's up to you :)

  10. blimey, that was a very intense response to a jokey post.

  11. oops it works

  12. That weren't intense - that were affable. I did smiley's 'n' all.

  13. Oddbins are doing a buy one get one free offer on Wolf Blass Yellow Label.
    No idea if that's a bargain or not for you winos

  14. Er, that's gold label shiraz. Never heard of it. Pretty expensive but 2-for-1 reduces it to a tenner a bottle which is about our upper limit so it might be worth a shot.
    I must say, since we've been trying various delights from Oddbins and Majestic, my palette has actually become a little more developed and now I find good old yellow label a tad bland. My drop of the moment is actually a cab sauv/pinotage blend from South Afican winery Flag Stone called Dragon Tree. It's been going cheap-ish at Oddbins but now seems to be getting end-of-life. Try snap some up, red wine lovers.