Lockdown 2 takes us into Advent, so why not browse and pre-order now? Wiggia offers his annual survey and recommendations:
In many ways such a strange, to put it mildly, year has made a Christmas list for supermarket and independent wine retailers at a similar level easier than in the past but for the wrong reasons.
The impact of the virus on retail trading has meant that little has changed on the shelves of the ‘big players’ with probably the exception of Majestic whose new management are changing their lists as we speak.
With M&S cutting back their range it means that there is not quite the choice as in previous years and even the newcomers Lidl and Aldi have not expanded their ranges but consolidated.
If there is one stand out supermarket red wine this year it is the Chilean giant Concho y Toro’s subsidiary Cono Sur’s organic Pinot Noir available at Sainsbury’s for £9.50 and less when on offer, Cono Sur has been turned over to producing Pinot Noir wines only and this latest addition is in my opinion better than their previous flagship (supermarket) 20 Barrels.
It was said that good PN was impossible to make cheaply; wrong, they are getting there, which must be worrying for the French who can at the moment almost charge what they like for sometimes indifferent red Burgundy.
But we will start with Champagne/sparkling wines, not an area I indulge in that much so I am fussy as to what I buy as the price often exceeds expectations.
The best supermarket own label Champagne for me was Waitrose Blanc de Noirs Brut NV: smooth, nice fruit, small bubbles and good value at £23.99. There is a whole raft of English sparklers now, all good, just choose your price band and select almost anything from Ridgeview, Hush Heath, Hattingley Valley Rose, Gusborne Blanc de Blanc, Nyetimber classic cuvee, to be honest Waitrose when it comes to English sparklers have so much more than anyone else there is little point in going elsewhere. For a Prosecco Ocado’s Abbazia Fiorino prosecco @ £9.99 was easily the best in that class; there is a bit of a Prosecco glut and many are really not that good though the price might be.
And again for the second year Bird in Hand sparkling Pinot Noir, again at Waitrose @£13.99 but often on offer.
In the red corner apart from the star above, there are other Pinot Noirs coming on stream that deserve attention without breaking the bank as so much Burgundy tries to do.
Germany is surprisingly the third biggest grower of PN but has suffered from thin wines in those northern climes. All has changed with the new climate now being enjoyed and some cracking Spatburgunders PN are arriving here, most are with wine merchants so the list is smaller for the market I am describing but Walt Pinot Noir from Booths at £10.50 is a steal; Waitrose have a decent cheap Romanian PN Sorcova at an amazing £7.79 - don’t be put off by the country of origin, those eastern European states are beginning to produce ever more decent bargain basement wines.
I find it difficult to suggest very much from Tesco these days as they have gone all big brand and own label, but in fairness Tesco's own label Finest Otago PN from NZ £13.00 is very decent and not many of the cheaper NZ PNs are that good a value, you have to spend to get what they are capable of providing.
Majestic do a very good PN from Oregon in the states, Erath 2017 at £19.99 plus an Australian Stonier 2017 from the cool climate Mornington Peninsula.
Bordeaux as usual always finds a place at the Christmas table and for good reason: Cabernet Sauvignon still makes probably the best all round wine for having with food and Christmas is all about good nosh.
Luckily it is not all in the Chateau Lafite price band, there are thousands of providers in Bordeaux and across the globe of this grape variety, the problem is that few of the worthwhile ones reach supermarkets.
Majestic has a few: Ch Caronne-ste Gemme from a good vintage 2015 at £14.99 is a good bet, Ch Bertrand-Braneyre from another good vintage 2009 at £15.99 is a sound buy, and another good cheapy from the very good 2016 vintage at £10.99 La Fleur Godard.
Lidl have a generic St Emilion Grand Cru at £10.99 which is well worth a punt, but for a better selection if you want to stay with Bordeaux you have to go to independents or The Wine Society, well worth joining if you drink a fair amount of wine as they have much bigger and better ranges in this sector.
I am not going to give a never ending list simply because it becomes tedious, this is a representative selection in all the categories that I have sampled or drunk.
There are some very good buys in the Spanish wines, Rioja we all know and I could a dozen easily that would fit the bill but just three here in different price brackets: Contino Reserva at Waitrose and Sainsbury’s at £25.00 is reliable top quality Rioja, Majestic have an even better wine in my opinion in Vina Ardanza Rioja Reserva ‘seleccion especiale’ 2010 La Rioja Alta only made in good years this at £24.99 is not cheap but worth every penny; Beronia is a very reliable winery owned by Gonzalez Byass of sherry fame and their reserva at £15. 00 won't let you down. Outside of Rioja there is a very nice refreshing and cheap Monastrell Palacio £7.99 at Waitrose and from Catalonia Roqueta Lafou El Sender Terra Alta £11.99 is a blend of mainly Garnacha/Grenache and a late find.
Australia is frustrating, all the supermarkets stock virtually the same big brand names, there is so much more from that country and it is a shame it is dominated by these well known names: some are good in their own right but more variety is badly needed, if you see McGuigan short list wines they are worth winkling out and are often on offer and grey label Wolf Blass as well, Waitrose have a cracker Bird in Hand wineries Shiraz £13.99.
South America supplies Malbec from Argentina in large quantities and many different wineries, and is now broadening the styles it produces away from the rather heavy earlier versions, the Santa Julia Malbec/Cabernet Franc blend at around £8.50 is still a good buy and available widely, Catena make many Malbecs yet their intro Malbec 13.49 is ultra reliable and often on offer, any of the Vinalba Malbecs are worth buying, again reliable and widely available and often on offer.
Rhone wines are now popular but again most supermarkets have either a range that doesn’t do justice to the region or they all have the same brands, Guigal’s Cotes de Rhone has long been a go to for the region around 12.50 , Waitrose have Chateau Maris Les Planels from the Languedoc region at 17.99, a big wine, spicy and a good substitute for the Rhone.
Italy is another country that has not been sending its better wines here at supermarket level, though a few shine through, Barolo is not a wine that comes cheap and if it does you know it, yet this bucks the trend, Lidl have a Barolo DOCG that is more than drinkable 11.99, normally even £30-40 bottles can be very disappointing.
At Waitrose there is a Sicilian ‘Le Sabbie dell’Etna rosso a nice deep coloured wine from an area that is increasingly being seen, worthwhile buy at 12.99, they also sell a decent Chianti, Piccini Valiano 6.38 Gran Selezione 19.99, also from Sicily is Nero Oro Riserva 2017 at Majestic another big and bold wine and £9.99 makes it good value.
Strangely a bit easier though not so many, at least there are some with quality at decent prices generally available.
There are now thanks to NZ turning the whole country it seems to growing Sauvignon Blanc hundreds to choose from, though not all come from there.
Majestic have a cracking Sancerre ‘Sur le Fort 2018 16.99, remember the prices at Majestic rely on you to buy six bottles mixed or otherwise.
Waitrose have several goodies but Greystone SB 15.99 just edged it on the ones I have tried.
Chardonnay has two styles now, the new leaner more dry in style and the older buttery ones, to me many of the newer style are a step too far but not all.
For lovers of white Bordeaux the Co Op are selling Clos Floridene Graves Blanc for 19 pounds.
A rare treat from the Napa Valley in the United States is this Stags Leap ‘Hands of Time’ Chardonnay, more of the new school drier version but very good at 19.99 at Majestic, also from Majestic a stalwart Saint Clair Pioneer Block Chardonnay 2017 15.99 and finally from Waitrose, Audrey Wilkinson Winemakers Selection Chardonnay 14.99 and great value for the quality.
Majestic in their revamp have a lot of fair priced French Burgundies and other Chardonnays but they are too new for me to have sampled.
Other grapes abound but few are worth the effort or at least those finding their way to the supermarket shelves, of the rest these stood out for me.
Among all the dross under the Pinot Grigio label I found a decent one, at Waitrose, Forte Alto PG Vignetti Delle Dolomiti Trentino 9.79, Masseria Pietrosa Verdeca from Morrisons suggested last year still stands up as good rarer grape wine, from Waitrose a Rondolino Vernaccia di San Gimignano by Teruzzi & Puthod is a fair example of the grape a slight natural spritz gives it an edge.
A bargain Gavi DOCG at 6.69 from Lidl was as good as many higher priced ones though I have never unlike others got very excited about the grape.
Alberino from Spain has made it into the top trendy whites to buy, for me it is to near to SB but the quality is now very good so if you like SB this is a slight change in style. Of the few tasted Majestic’s own label Definition Alberino 2019 Rias Baixas is one of the few own labels I would recommend a good example of the grape at 9.99, they also have a Winemakers Series Godello at the same price which is worth trying.
If you are looking for a Riesling then you have a problem, it is still not popular enough for the big players to stock anything worthwhile, you still have to go to specialist merchants to find the real thing, with one exception: Majestic have an Aussie Riesling that is worth your attention, Petaluma ‘Hanlin Hill’ 2016 from the Clare Valley where the best of Australian Rieslings come from, not cheap at 22.99 but worth it.
M&S have a nice Classics Pinot Gris from the very good co operative Cave de Turckheim at a tenner, another grape that is difficult to find decent examples of in supermarkets, rich slightly oily taste which is typical.
ROSE / PINK
Rosé or pink wines sales have gone through the roof in the last couple of years. I never could see the point of them but I have been forced to change my mind and we are long past the likes of Mateus Rosé, good versions abound away from the ‘home’ of Rosé Provence, from that ‘home’ Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Cotes de Provence Rosé at 8.75 is a very good buy, Majestic have an amazing value Argentinian Alamos Rosé 6.99, they also have Pasqua 11 Minutes Rosé from Italy 12.99, a lighter style from England is Camel Valley Pinot Noir Rosé at Waitrose for 13,99; all are ones I have tried and recommend, there are now dozens more to choose from and one thing strikes you straight away about the Rosé on offer - that is the amazingly high standard across the board; why this should be against red and white wines I don’t know other than the fact it is made out of a smaller range of grape varieties but even that is changing.
Fortified wines in truth do not vary in what is on the shelves very much year to year, only with port the vintages change yet that is really only at the higher price points, so this year for what the supermarkets offer it is not a lot different to last year, taking into consideration that I have put a ceiling on the price of all wines on here at £25 as above the range in those same supermarkets apart from Waitrose and also Majestic is very limited anyway.
The best Fino sherries include two own label and in the case of Morrisons Fino the cheapest available at 4.85, only the collapse in the bulk sherry market makes this price possible, take advantage while you can, and Waitrose blue label Fino at 7.65 is still a good buy; the truth is for sherry only Waitrose of the big sellers have a decent range apart from that one bottle from Morrisons, if you want decent sherry and don’t buy from independents you might as well get it all from Wairose so all the following come from that source.
For Manzanilla their own blue label at 7.65 is reliable, Solear from Barbadillo 10.99, Hidalgo’s La Gitana a perennial favourite 11.99, Alegria in half bottles at 5.49 is very aromatic.
A further Fino: Gonzales Byass Delicado Fino 14.49.
Oloroso and Amontillado sherries, from Lustau a treat with Oloroso Almacenista Pata de Gallina 17.99, Gonzales Byass On the QT Edition Barrel 1E 51 Amontillado 19.99 expensive but worth it, after all it is Christmas, their Blueprint Amontillado 7.65 is also decent.
Majestic are just starting to stock some sherries again and Pedro’s Almacenista Selection Amontillado 11.99 is another I would buy.
Port is still a bargain considering the quality of the product. For tawny any of those by Graham at 10/20/30 years are great buys, the 30 year old one is above my ceiling but if you want to push the boat out why not. Graham's Malvedos Vintage port at £28 is also over LIMIT but usually on offer at less on the run up to Christmas so look out for it, all those are generally available, Sandeman Late Bottled Vintage Port a nice rich flavoured port 17.99 from Waitrose. I have never purchased wine from Amazon but I know someone who does occasionally and the white port he purchased from there, by Ferriera Don Antonia Reserve White at 22.70 was an exotic indulgence.
What is obvious is exactly what I predicted years ago has happened: the big supermarkets having cornered the market in wine sales have changed course and instead of competing with one another with ever changing ranges as they used to, they now are applying the typical supermarket buying power and we have seen a uniform big-brands and own-labels takeover of the shelves. Only Waitrose and Booths in the North stand out as having wine lists worth bothering with now. The slide started when Sainsbury’s and then Tesco dumped their very good online wine direct outlets and it has been downhill ever since.
The upside is online sales: more and more of the independents are putting together very good wine lists for online sales; should I live that long, next year I will include some including the Wine Society, as it has been not a joyful task this year ferreting out decent wines from the big players; Tesco more than any others has really stuck two fingers up at the customers it attracted when they had a very good range to buy, but it was predicted.
Early, but a merry Christmas to all!