Writing this is a wonderful example of how realising that it is time for another listing, is that the years go by ever quicker. If I didn’t have a calendar I would have guessed it was around August Bank Holiday, at the latest, but it isn’t and time for the annual suggestions. Unlike the tasters in the magazines and online who have access to unlimited wines, my list is from wines I have purchased and tasted/drunk with very few exceptions.
Christmas is the time for celebration, or should be, though this year there is very little in this land to celebrate. All the more reason to buy a few bottles for the festive season and enjoy that warm feeling you will not get if you read the dead tree press or watch television news.
Celebration means sparkling wine and Champagne, and as before I have to confess this is an area I have the least input on. I do like the odd bottle of Champagne/sparkling wine but have with very few exceptions found it difficult to justify the price for the pleasure it gives; but I am in a minority, so believing in the main these bottles will be used for family gatherings and parties I have kept the price down to manageable levels as one bottle will not usually suffice.
In no particular order:
- Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Cremant de Loire Brut - I can genuinely recommend this at around £11.
- Aldi do a very presentable Champagne at the ridiculous price (for Champagne, that is !) of £12.49: Veuve Monsigny Brut Grand Reserve NV
- Asda ditto with their own Extra Special Louis Bernard Champagne.
- Morrisons Adrien Chopin brut Champagne at currently £15
- Cave de Lugny NV sparkling Burgundy at £13.99.
- Juve & Camps seleccion reserve Cava £11.99, which is very good at this price level.
- L’Atzar Cava Reserve at £10.99 - another great value Cava.
- Bird in Hand Sparkling Pinot Noir at £15.99 for something a bit different from Australia, in effect a rosé
- And a goody from our own vineyards if you want to push the boat out a bit more: Ridgeview Bloomsbury NV - £28.99.
There are some good Proseccos among all the rubbish but not having tasted any apart from one, they stay unmentioned. This is now a very popular and large category and there is something for everyone if you like sparkling wine. The one was Tesco's Finest Prosecco Brut at £8: I thought it decent and good value. Critics thought a lot more of it and gave it best value bubbly, which shows how tastes can vary, I just did not think it was ‘that’ good.
We follow with Port and Sherry and the fortified section. Sherry has been struggling with sales in recent years but the figures for this year show a very welcome and decent increase in sales. The depressed market has meant depressed retail prices for many years but this could all change so take advantage of some of the bargains of the wine world while you can. Port on the other hand is still struggling to sell and again there are some relative bargains in the sector.
If you like vintage port and don’t want to spend the £60-100 pounds needed to buy the best examples like Taylors and Grahams then look for the lesser brands, often the Portuguese owned ones such as Kopke, the oldest Port House of all, Ramos Pinto and Calem, or the single vineyard vintage ports put out by the likes of Taylors, Grahams and Warre normally seen as Quintas (single vineyards), some in wooden gift boxes and often as low as £20 when on offer. Taylors Vargelas is a good one and available at Waitrose and elsewhere.
Port is not difficult to evaluate, it changes little as to what is on offer year on year, and many of the more popular ones are made to standard that varies little each year, nonetheless the quality is high across the board.
If you want a ruby port to please Granny when she appears at Christmas, Morrisons Ruby Port as last year is still the option that is easiest on the pocket and within the bottle is real quality, a bargain.
I would go for something a bit better at this time. All the major players, Taylors, Graham, Warres, Cockburn, Sandeman and so on do very good LBVs, late bottled vintage, crusted and tawny ports with age. The tawny versions are probably the best in this category and the ten-year versions from all of them will not break the bank though my favorite and that of many who have tasted it is not so cheap: Grahams 20 year Tawny will set you back the best part of £40 but is worth every penny, again available at Waitrose and elsewhere.
For a sweeter tooth some very good Marsalas such as those from Pellegrino and Marco de Bartoli are worth looking out for and again won't break the bank at well under £10, they also double up as a drink and a wonderful addition to pour over ice cream and certain desserts, plus many of these dessert wines are in half bottles so no waste if you just want a glass. Look out also for Madeiras: they are not in fashion at the moment and the vineyards are going through a hard time, but the likes of Blandys Duke of Clarence is available at ASDA for a tenner and Henriques & Henriques Full Rich Madeira is available at Waitrose for £10.99, another out of fashion bargain.
As I said sherry is apparently on the up, there are certainly more of the better higher priced sherries coming onto the market but not really in supermarkets, in fact supermarkets seem to be cutting back their ranges. Sainsbury’s has for instance gone nearly all own label and no longer include a fino or manzanilla at all in their range !
For the dry finos and manzanillas the choice is stark unless you are a member of the Wine Society or have a good independent merchant near you.
So the choice comes down to Morrisons own label fino which is amazing value at £5.50; and Waitrose own label fino and award winning manzanilla at £7.65 - both are reliable and way above their price in quality. Another quality manzanilla available at Waitrose and elsewhere is Solear by Barbadillo, lovely wine for little more and Hidalgos Pasana Pastrada Manzanilla.
For Amontillados and Olorosos the choice is better if you shop at Waitrose, every where else is cutting back on sherry and introducing own labels. Sainsbury's no longer do a Fino own label and Majestic have all but abandoned sherry altogether apart from one Amontillado by the very good firm of Hidalgo, Napoleon Seco (dry) at £14.99. Tesco have one stand out Oloroso under the Finest label: a half bottle of Pedro Ximinez at £6.00. A standout Oloroso is Morrisons the Best, made by Lustau one of the great sherry houses this, dry nutty and recommended, £5.50, a bargain.
Waitrose is fast becoming the only supermarket that does a decent range of sherries and their own label Amontillado at £7.65 is to be recommended, they also stock Lustaus East India Solers Oloroso an old sherry in a 50cc bottle at £11.99, plus a very good 12 years old oloroso from Williams and Humbert at £11.99, they also stock the Gonzalez Byass range in half bottles with which you cannot go wrong.
Bargain wines: the "five pound ceiling", so called by the trade as buyers here are reluctant to spend more on a bottle of wine has not stopped the trade continually pushing for people to spend ‘a little more’ and reap the benefits. All things being equal it makes sense, it is true that the actual value of the wine in a five pound bottle is as low as 30p, the rest taken up with tax, marketing, packaging and of course profits for all involved. If you spend a tenner on a bottle the value of the wine rises to around £1.60, so you can see where they are coming from. As usual that presupposes that the wine is any good so spending a tenner does not guarantee quality because of the price alone.
Five pounds for a bottle: are there any good ones out there? For those throwing parties, five pound bottles make sense as few will care much about the quality as long as it is drinkable, yet there are some decent bottles at that price or near even now so it does no harm to look for them.Most of that bracket is controlled by the huge wineries such as the American giant Gallo, and the Australian equivalents, the Barefoot, Yellowtail etc bottles dominate, yet you can see on the shelves some other more distinctive bargains. You have to be careful in this sector as often new wines are put in competition to win awards and recognition and that year's production can be very good for the money, but subsequent vintages have a habit of sliding down the quality scale as the initial vintage is in effect a loss leader.
Anyway, here's a few reds to get you started:
- Sainsbury's Rioja Era Cosana Crianza at £5.85 is a steal and seems to keep up the standard vintage to vintage
- Tesco do a gluggable Nero D’Avola at £5.50
- Waitrose do an own label Romanian Pinot Noir at £5.50 which for a decent PN is ridiculous
- Morrisons do a equally good Pinot Noir from Argentina by Trapiche at two for £10, perfect party wines.
- Aldi do an ‘Exquisite’ Malbec at £5.99 that just squeezes in and is decent, plus Toro Loco organico Utiel Requena at £4.99 is the bargain of them all and the best of several Toro Loco wines. Aldi in fact easily outstrip everyone on VFM cheapies.
- Lidl manage a couple of decent cheapies: their Winemakers Selection Barrosa Valley Shiraz £5.99 is a bargain for a fruity full on Shiraz, plus there is a ridiculously cheap (at £3.99) Cimarosa South African Pinotage, cheap enough to fill everyone's boots.
- A late addition and a very big prizewinner from ASDA is Wine Atlas Feteascu Neagra for £5.25 a bottle, berry flavours fresh and a terrific party wine, from Romania - we are at last going to see more good wines at fair prices from the eastern bloc.
Whites in this cheap grouping offer a much more varied choice for reasons I simply don’t know, they easily outstrip the reds. I’ll start with:
- Aldi - under the Exquisite label they have a very good Rias Baixas Alberino and a Sauvignon Blanc from Freemans Bay both £5.99, plus a Sauvignon Blanc from the Leyda Valley (Chile) £5.49. Add to that a very drinkable Muscadet Sevre et Maine sur Lie £5.69 and again under the own label a Limestone Coast Chardonnay £5.99 and you have if you want pretty well covered the needs of white party wines.
- Morrisons own Sauvignon Blanc from Chile at £4.50 is if nothing else drinkable and at that price you can fill up your guests' glasses without feeling your wallet draining.
- Waitrose have a Hungarian Hilltop Estate Pinot Grigio that has been reduced to £5.99
- Lidl stock a very good value Soave Classico £4.49, a Cimarosa Torrontes from Argentina £4.99 and another under the Cimarosa label, a Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough £5.99.
- ASDA have a Viognier if you would like something a little different: La Grand Clauzy, currently at £5.00.
Right, let's get away from the party cheapies. Better wines: here are some wines red and white that you might fancy over the festive period either with food or on their own, no particular price points though the expensive stuff is not usually stocked by supermarkets anyway.
Some new finds among this selection, there could be many more but I have tried to whittle it down to something manageable.
Just a point before I start: it is no surprise and I voiced such some years back, now that the supermarkets have cornered the everyday wine trade the choice is being throttled and more own labels are taking over. Tesco in particular have gone from what was a good high street wine retailer to an extremely, in the main, boring one with more own labels and big brands than anyone else, but the others are not far behind. It was inevitable with their buying power this would happen. Given nothing to compare with, own labels are not inherently bad but do give the supermarkets the chance to price without comparison.
Firstly Waitrose, the last supermarket to still have a decent range of wines from individual growers. Starting with their reds:
- Wirra Wirra Church Block a blend of three grapes from the Barrosa very reliable - £13.99
- Vinalba Reserve Malbec from Argentina also £13.99, Vinalba do a very good range of wines at or around the ten pound mark.
- Kilikanoon Grenache Shiraz Mataro £10.99
- Castilo de Olite Collecion from Spain very good price-quality ratio at £9.99
- Chateau Maris Organic Minervois £10.99 very upfront fruit but fresh, and from the same stable
- Chateau Maris Les Planels Cru La Liviniere £17.99 - I really liked this one
- Le Sabbie dell’Etna Rosso £12.99
- Baiocchi Montefalco Sagrantin - an unusual grape but very nice wine: £15.99
Waitrose have quite a few others more than worthy of inclusion plus their fine wine section, but I have tried to keep the selection fresh.
White wines from Waitrose:
From a large range of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs that do little for me despite their popularity, the best I have tasted are:
- Astrolabe Awatere £19.99
- Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc £14.99
- and a Pinot Gris as good as I have tasted outside of the Alsace, from ARA Single Vineyard at £10.99.
Waitrose whites from elsewhere:
- A better Italian, Terredora Greco di Tufo £14.99
- From Bordeaux. Chateau La Louviere is a classic blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, lovely with fish dishes £24.99
- and a Chardonnay from California: Frei Brothers Sonoma Reserve £17.99.
Majestic are going through a time of takeover so I've no idea what lies ahead. They have suffered for a variety of reasons, the main one being the strange pricing policies. Nevertheless there are some good red wines there:
- Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza Reserva 2009 £19.99
- Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso 2016 La Casetta £14.99
- Nero Oro Riserva from Sicily £11.99
- Gnarly Dudes Shiraz from Two Hands winery £18.99
- Vinalba Touriga Nacional-Malbec Reserve £11.99 - the pick for me of five different Vinalba wines Majestic do, all good.
- Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc is for me as good as any from NZ with that grape £17.99
- Domaine Saint Ferriol Viognier is a cracker at £12.99
- a spicy Gerwurtztraminer from Schlumberger, Les Princes Abbes, great firm nice wine £14.99
- a lovely Chardonnay from Domaine Begude ‘Arcturus’ from the Limoux region: expensive but worth it £36.00
- a better than average Gavi La Raia ‘Il Borgo’ £11.99 finishes those that I have tried from Majestic.
The Sainsbury's whites that caught the eye during the year:
- Stellenrust Chenin Blanc from SA at £8.50 is a good buy
- also from SA the Bellingham Bernard Series Rousanne makes a change £10.25
Tesco have just introduced a Rhone white from Guigal who do not seem to make a bad wine, Guigal Cote de Rhone White is £12.00.
Aldi have a rather good white Grenache, Baron de Ley Garnacha Blanca at £8.99 and a Kirkberg from Austria Gruner Veltliner £8.99 a favoured grape with many.
In reds Aldi actually have found a Barberesco for £9.99 Roversi normally I would steer clear of cheap wines from this part of the world but this one bucks the trend amazing value for a prestigious bottle.
Whereas ASDA can offer Cascina Valentino Roero Arneis, a difficult grape and rarely true to type but here they managed a good stab at it at a very good price £9.50.
Morrisons are not known for top end wines, yet in their offerings
- the Vinalba Malbec and blends are a good buy and usually at least one is on offer at around £10
- Contino Reserva Rioja is a top rate version at £22.50
- and they usually have the Cono Sur 20 Barrels Pinot Noir at £14.00 which is cheaper than anyone else for a good South American version of the grape.
Anyone looking for a Riesling will struggle to find anything in these stores, only Majestic have few, the best being from Australia. The ones they have I haven’t tried but by reputation for quality the Greywacke version would be the one I would go for, otherwise the choice is dire.
I no longer have a decent Co-op near me. The last one had a very good range of wines and many rather surprising ones, it was always worth a browse, but from their web site I see a very good Bordeaux, Ch Senejac 2012 £17 pounds is available, not the sort of wine you expect at the Co-Op but you would be wrong, lovely wine to go with the Christmas dinner. If you like spicy Rhone reds they do a couple from the firm of Perrin, a Chateauneuf de Pape Les Sinards £20 and a Vinsobres Les Cornuds at just £10.
Pudding or dessert wines are not everyone's taste yet again there are many lovely bottles to be had, if you have sweet tooth or want something to go with the Stilton or any other strong blue cheese. These are wines that I have had over time and they are normally very reliable, just a few then:
- Aldi have an Australian ‘sticky’ De Bortolis Liquer Muscat at £8,
- Sainsbury's do a rather special treat Royal Tokaji Late Harvest in their Taste the Difference range 50cl bottle at £10 a real value buy for such a prestigious winery
- Waitrose again have easily the biggest range in these wines: a Sauterne from Ch Liot a half bottle at £13.99 is good value, plus from the Loire Chateau Gaudrelle Vouvray Reserve Especial Moelleux, another half bottle at £10.99 makes a change - a lot of very good sweet wines come from the Loire but are rarely seen.
You may have noticed there are no rosés shown, that is because I rarely drink them, but instead a photo of a rosé will have to suffice !
|Perhaps "pink wine" would be a better term...|
What this past year has shown is the contraction in many areas of wine within the supermarkets. Own labels and big brands now rule.
If you want find interesting wines you are going to have to look elsewhere, I have mentioned before The Wine Society have a wonderful range at all price points the £40 life membership is worth every penny and you get £20 back on your first order they are well worth a look.
I hope there is something there for everyone, not including £20-plus wines apart from one or two is a deliberate move as I imagine drinkers who regularly spend that sort of money don’t need any help from me !
So Christmas beckons to all...
... and whatever else fits the bill
Happy Christmas to You!