We’re lucky enough to live close enough to the Channel Tunnel, that it’s possible to do a quick dash to France over a weekend to stock up. Although the strength of the Euro against the pound doesn’t make it quite as attractive from a cost perspective as it was a couple of years ago, there are still numerous things we can’t easily (or cheaply) get here that make the trip worthwhile: Bonne Maman baba au rhum, big jars of cornichons, tins of cassoulet, slabs of comté cheese etc. And where in the UK can you buy globe artichokes for the equivalent of £1? Last time I looked, it was closer to £3. Our friends, K+L, have recently returned from a couple of years living abroad so we were more than happy to accompany them to northern France last weekend to help stock their cellar. We spent a very pleasant couple of days in Montreuil-sur-mer, enjoying great food and sipping Kir Royals in the sunshine. Our usual port of call for food in France is the Auchan chain – historically much better and less touristy than Carrefour, at least in Calais. However, the wine selection this time was strangely poor. Okay, the strong Euro didn’t help but, although most French regions were represented, choice seemed to be seriously limited. Last year, we bought wine at Auchan in Blois and were disappointed with almost every bottle. At the time we thought it was a one off, but perhaps it wasn’t. Having all had limited success, K+L suggested trying the branch of Majestic just down the road from Auchan. To me it initially seemed a bit of an anathema, going all the way to France only to buy wine from Majestic, but I have to concede that the offers were incredible. Yes, there was a limited choice, compared with our local branch, but as a source of ‘Monday night wine’ it was brilliant. We picked up half a case of The Ned Sauvignon Blanc 2009, which normally retails for around £9 in Waitrose, for the equivalent of about £4. Although not quite so good, their champagne offers were also great value: Pol Roger NV Brut for around £22. Not so long ago, the word was that Majestic’s French business was struggling. At the time a spokesman described how ”The romance has gone out of travelling to the continent for a day trip’ partly because of the strong Euro, but also because ‘so many French products were now as easily available in UK supermarkets as in France.’ (Not sure I agree with the latter, certainly from a food perspective). It’s difficult to see how Majestic can be making a profit in France, given those offers: the Ned Sauvignon, is almost certainly being sold at or very close to cost, for example. But are the days of the ‘booze cruise’ really dead? Is that why Auchan’s selection seems to have declined? And more importantly, to me at any rate, where do the French buy their wine, if not at the supermarket?

The self-styled first families of Australian wine have come together with the aim of promoting the country’s ‘truly outstanding wines’. Together, the twelve families have over 1200 years of winemaking experience and represent sixteen regions across four states.

As their promotional literature states, although many people around the globe enjoy Australian wines, less is known about the premium wines, and this is partly why we attended one of their tastings in London the other week. Although we got some sense of change in Australian wines during our travels in the country last year, too many years of cheap, big brands, have made me cautious about buying anything Australian here in the UK.

Australia's First Families

On the night, 72 wines were on offer – 12 from each of the families. Although we didn’t sample the full range, we tried enough to have some of our reservations reinforced but, more importantly, make some great discoveries. I include notes on a handful of wines I will particularly be searching out.

Despite my love of whites, overall I preferred the reds I tried, which was something of a surprise as I’ve traditionally shied away from what I’d perceived as big headachey Aussie reds. Frankly, I suspect a lot of the whites were served just too cold on the night, which left many strangely devoid of much flavour. One exception was a vertical of Tahbilk’s Marsanne. Of the 2007, 2002 and 1992, the 2002 drank best with a lovely, rich floral nose, but a surprising freshness.

Throughout the evening, the winemakers we spoke to repeatedly emphasised the shift from a focus on work in the cellar, for example indiscriminate use of new oak, to more focus on processes in the vineyard, such as hand picking grapes, which can only be a good thing.

The wines I’ll be seeking out include:

d’Arenberg The Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier 2007
The addition of 10% Viognier really lifted this wine, adding a delicate perfume to the hefty dark fruit of the Shiraz.

De Bortoli Gulf Station Pinot Noir 2008
A lovely, elegant pinot. Plenty of red fruit with savoury notes and just about the right amount of tannic grip.

Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
Dark, intense wine. Lots of black fruit, particularly blackberry, on the palate, with a touch of mint and leather. Rich, mouthfilling tannins. Prefered this to the ‘Reserve’ Cabernet.

Tyrell’s Vat 47 Hunter Chardonnay 2006
The real surprise of the night. A lovely fresh Chardonnay, with a crisp acidity and notes of stone fruit. The wine is not allowed to undergo a malolactic fermentation and spends just six months in oak, only one third of which is new. Lovely.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting on the garage floor, helping my dad to make wine. If I was really good, I got to do the bottling. I’m pleased to say that he’s moved on from crab apple to Claret, but my subsequent interest in wine, including the production process, is probably no surprise.

I first came across the Urban Wine Company in a Radio 4 programme on the River Wandle, which flows through South West London, where we live. The company acts as a collective for local growers all over London and the South East: in the autumn, grapes are collected from growers across the wine, and processed to produce a wine, which is affectionately known as Chateau Tooting. The 2009 vintage was recently launched with favourable reviews in Decanter! They will also provide vines for new members.

Although we don’t have much space, I fancied giving vine growing a go, and my baby vine arrived last week. We opted for a white variety, Solaris, which I gather is fairly hardy and suitable for ‘marginal climates’. It will be a couple of years before we get any fruit to contribute to the harvest but I understand it gives wines which have ‘fruity and perfumed aromas with hints of banana and hazelnuts, with medium acidity’. The UWC allows members to put their own labels on the wine, so we look forward to sampling Chateau Hewitt in due course.

As you can see though, this is quite a long way off at the moment…

Bare-rooted Solaris Vine

Baby Solaris Vine

Things have been fairly quiet on here recently as preparations for a work-related interview have cut down not only my spare time, but also our sampling. However, the results of my recent WSET exam (I did much better than I’d expected) gave us cause to open a bottle of bubbles.

I’ve followed the rise of English sparkling wines with some interest, partly because we know the predominant growing area in Sussex quite well. My aunt lives in West Chiltington, where Nyetimber is produced, and it’s been served on family occasions, including our engagement lunch.

I was therefore really chuffed when the Nyetimber 2003 Classic Cuvée was crowned ‘Champion of Worldwide Sparkling Wines’ back in January in the 2nd annual ‘Bollicine Del Mondo’ competition in Italy. Champagnes and sparkling wines competed against each other on a level playing field, and the Nyetimber was up against Champagnes including Louis Roederer (Millesimè 2000), the Bollinger-owned Champagne Ayala, (Dosage Zero), and Pommery (Blancs de Blanc and Brut Apanage).

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s now almost impossible to get hold of the wine, but I managed to secure a few bottles via Slurp.co.uk.

Nyetimber 2003 Classic Cuvee

The Classic Cuvée is made using the Traditional Method, and the richness of the 2003 vintage is probably due at least in part to the incredibly hot summer we experienced in the South of England that year. The wine is a pale lemon colour, and Chardonnay predominates. On the nose, there were strong notes of green apple, with just a hint of toast. The palate was lovely and fruity with, again, green apple and apricot, plus citrus and a touch of minerality on the finish. A lovely, refreshing aperitif. (16/20)

In her second selection of wines for under five pounds, Times wine writer Jane MacQuitty’s focussed on reds. Her choices included eight French wines, but also a good range from across the rest of the world, both old and new. Disappointingly, however, only three of the selection were normally priced at less than £5, the remainder being on special offer at the time the article was published. However, once again, she suggested wines to suit a variety of palates, from across the supermarkets.

I’m currently enjoying exploring southern Rhône reds, so picked up a bottle of 2008 Coteaux du Tricastin, Cuvée Traditionnelle, Cellier des Dauphins (Waitrose, down £1.50 to £4.49). MacQuitty describes this as a ‘ ripe, racy, Grenache based, unoaked Rhône, dominated by a seductive, spicy, peppery dollop of Syrah.’ Coteaux du Tricastin is one of the northernmost appellations in the southern Rhône.

Cellier des Dauphins, Coteaux du Tricastin

The wine was surprisingly thin and pale for a Rhône and, whilst I’m not sure it was either ‘racy’ or ‘seductive’ when I tasted it, it was full of red fruit, particularly raspberries, with a hint of cedar and pepper on the finish. A straightforward, soft red for midweek drinking.

In summary, Jane MacQuitty may have convinced me to abandon some of my prejudices about sub-£5 wines, but I think both the red and the white that I sampled illustrate nicely that a few more pounds, carefully spent, would probably buy something a bit more complex and interesting flavour-wise.

After enduring too many bottles of cheap, mainly New World, wine as a student, I freely admit that I’m sceptical about buying cheap wine. Given recent hikes in prices, to me this now means anything sub-£7. It’s just false economy, and often a pound or two more, chosen well, buys something in a totally different league.

I was extremely sceptical then when I saw that the Times wine writer, Jane MacQuitty, was doing a series on ‘wines for under a fiver’. Call me a wine snob, but I really would be very wary of picking anything up at less than £5 full-price, so I was intrigued to see what she would come up with.

On Saturday March 6th, MacQuitty covered white wines priced at less than £5, including one fizz and three pudding wines. Well over half are available from the major supermarkets, although there was also a good selection from Majestic.

It was disappointing, but perhaps not suprising to see that of the thirty wines, 21 (including two of her three top choices) were currently on offer at the time, and were all normally priced at more than £5. She does however, perhaps acknowledge this as the supplement mentions ‘amazing deals this month.’

Anyway, I thought I’d abandon my prejudices and give a couple a go, sticking to the handful of wines that normally retail at sub-£5. Although I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy the £3 Marsanne from Asda – even if it was one of MacQuitty’s top three – my first choice, the 2009 Grand Lopez Airén-Sauvignon Blanc (£4.49, Waitrose), had sold out.

However, the 2008 Pujalet (£4.99, Waitrose), a Vin de Pays from South West France, was surprisingly agreeable. I served it in a chiller collar, covering the label to see what comments it elicited blind and my husband, whose palate is even more choosy than mine, was pleasantly surprised.

Pujalet

A blend of Colombard and Ugni blanc, the wine was light with a lovely freshness. It won’t win any awards for flavour and complexity, but the delicate floral nose and zingy citrus notes on the palate made it a refreshing accompaniment to pizza at least!

Whilst I haven’t set aside my concerns about sub-£5 wines completely, on this basis I will look out for the Grand Lopez, and report shortly on MacQuitty’s recommended reds.

There is a pub near us which intermittently has a board outside, advertising the fact that they have Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc in stock. It saddens me firstly that a pub, in a beautiful location alongside the Thames, feels it needs Cloudy Bay to draw people in, but most of all what a draw Cloudy Bay has become.

I’m not necessarily knocking the wines (although I wasn’t bowled over by a recent tasting of the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc), but I will happily stick my head above the parapet and claim that there are a whole host of other New Zealand Sauvignons out there that are not only better, but also much better value. I’m personally don’t think Cloudy Bay delivers enough to justify its £17.99 price tag.

In certain circles, Cloudy Bay seems to have become a benchmark for the Marlborough region. However, it’s debatable how much of its cult status is more the result of clever marketing: the brand was bought in 2003 by ‘luxury goods firm’ LVMH (Louis Vuitton Möet Hennessy).

Anyhow, below are notes on a couple of NZ Sauvignon Blancs from the Marlborough region that we first enjoyed on a trip to Auckland last year. Both are available in the UK, and well worth trying as an alternative to Cloudy Bay. Over the coming weeks, I’ll also be adding notes on other New Zealand wines, made from grape varieties other than the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc.

Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2007
We first tried this, drinking out of mugs in a wonderfully chintzy motel near the Bay of Islands, to the north of New Zealand. Perhaps an illustration that a great wine will shine through, despite! Clos Henri was established in the Wairau Valley in Marlborough by the family of Henri Bourgeois, the renowned Sancerre producer. The first vintage was produced in 2003.

Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2007

Although this bottle was almost three years old, the wine had lost none of its freshness. A powerful nose of mango and papaya, which was also reflected on the palate. A wonderfully complex wine with intense flavours of mango, papaya, gooseberries and green pepper, with a crisp minerality on the finish. Overall, a well balanced wine, with lovely well-rounded fruit and a zippy acidity. (18/20)

The Ned Sauvignon Blanc 2009
We came across this one in the bar at the top of the Sky Tower in Auckland, where we enjoyed spectacular views across Auckland Harbour to Waiheke Island. The vineyards of the Ned are located on the southern side of the Wairau Valley and the mouth of the Waihopai Valley. The wine is named after one of the tallest peaks to the south east of the vineyard, and 2009 was just the fourth vintage to be produced.

The Ned Sauvignon Blanc 2009

A very pale wine, with a classic NZ Sauvignon nose of grapefruit and tropical fruit. Crisp minerality on the palate, with hints of passion fruit, lime and gooseberry. Lovely clean finish. Excellent value. (15/20, Waitrose £9.99)

All these wines can be sourced via www.wine-searcher.com