My Round: Familiarity breeds contempt

A big brand tasting reveals some dismal, undrinkable wines. The moral? Don't base your buying on familiar names
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Normal people often ask restaurant reviewers - whose occupation places them somewhere between sword-swallowers and stunt drivers on the Professional Normality Scale - what they expect when they go to a new restaurant for reviewing purposes. A common assumption: reviewers want the restaurant to be lousy, so they can write a witty put-down. In the days when I did restaurant reviewing, my answer was always: "I hope to have the best meal of my life, so I will have an enjoyable evening."

Normal people often ask restaurant reviewers - whose occupation places them somewhere between sword-swallowers and stunt drivers on the Professional Normality Scale - what they expect when they go to a new restaurant for reviewing purposes. A common assumption: reviewers want the restaurant to be lousy, so they can write a witty put-down. In the days when I did restaurant reviewing, my answer was always: "I hope to have the best meal of my life, so I will have an enjoyable evening."

In wine writing, the answer is the same. When I go to a tasting, I hope to sample wonderful wines and have a great time. But it doesn't always happen that way. That's why my heart went out to the tasters who took part in a tasting that featured recently in an issue of Which? magazine. The subject: major wine brands. The verdict, roughly: "yuck", "zzzzzz" or "pass the sick bag".

Which? never reveals the names of the people on its panels, but they were doing a heroic deed in going along for this tasting. No one who tastes wine for professional reasons ever expects to have a joyous time tasting big brands. But the results of this exercise were even more dismal, I suspect, than the tasters expected. To recap the response in brief: none of the wines scored over 13 points out of 20. Some wines ranked so low they were nearly off the scale, with Piat d'Or, Gallo and Banrock Station showing particularly badly. Top scoring producers included Rosemount, Lindemans and Hardys. One surprise was the relatively high score for Blossom Hill Reserve Chardonnay 2002: Blossom Hill is synonymous with poor quality in the eyes of many a wine hack (and two other BH wines did fare very badly).

The magazine's only Best Buy recommendation came for Lindemans Cawarra Cabernet Merlot 2004, which represented good value at £4.99. The other winning reds were both from Rosemount, Diamond Label Merlot 2002 (£7.49) and Diamond Label Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (£6.99). They were among the most expensive wines and therefore not deserving of Best Buy stature. Top-ranked whites were Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay 2004 (£5.99) and Hardys Nottage Hill Chardonnay 2003 (£6.49).

I don't know if I would agree with all the rankings in the Which? article, but I do know one thing: at these prices, you can do better than these wines. And more than that, you can do better in general if you don't base your wine buying on a search for familiar names. Even when the name is familiar, Penfolds for instance, not all its wines are of the same quality. Penfolds fared poorly in the Which? tasting, but I've highlighted another wine below which I think is good - especially at the temporarily reduced price from Asda. And look at that Blossom Hill Reserve Chardonnay, which scored high while others from the same producer came bottom of the heap.

The moral here is complicated. Part of the moral: brands are not always bad. They get people drinking wine who might not have drunk it otherwise, and some of those people will move on from safe, easy options to more interesting stuff. The other part of the moral: even high-scoring brands deliver less of a thrill, on the whole, than you are entitled to expect for your hard-earned money. You're better off doing your research, seeking advice, and taking the odd chance on wines you've never heard of (like the other two below).

Yes, this is more work than buying a name you've heard of. But do you go to Pizza Express every time you dine out? I didn't think so. Why should wine buying be any different? Sometimes you just have to take a chance on the unfamiliar.

Top Corks: Three cheering reds

Domaine du Petit Roubie Syrah 2002, Vin de Pays de l'Herault (£4.49, Booths) Earthy, hearty stuff, fine berry flavours and a decent whiff of spice. At the price, a really interesting mouthful.

Home Ranch Pinot Noir 2003 (£7.99 from £9.99 until 2 April, M&S) Herbal scents, well-defined Pinot fruit with a pleasantly tart finish. Big, but loveable. Sale price is a bargain.

Penfolds Thomas Hyland Shiraz 2002 (£6.73 from £8.99 until 24 April, Asda) Generous, smoky-oak-scented fruit and good tannic structure. Well worth having with the discount.

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