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Oddbins 'Selection': French classics under the Oddbins brand 

Oddbins (www.oddbins.com) have just released a range of wines going under the name of 'Oddbins Selection'. They're labelled simply with the names of six of France's most famous appellations: Bordeaux, Chateauneuf du Pape, Bourgogne, Sancerre, Chablis and Pouilly Fume. So here we have an example of appellations as brands – how have they done, and does this concept work in practice?

Let's start with a philosophical point. I have a problem with the use of appellations as brands, and it goes something like this. If you are going to use the name of the place on the label of a wine, then therefs no point if it doesnft actually taste of that place. Letfs put that another way: whatfs the point of a place name on a label if a wine tastes like it could have come from anywhere?

The French appellation controllée system is a brilliant idea for those wines which have a sense of place about them. For example, if Crozes-Hermitage tastes like Crozes-Hermitage to the extent you could pick it blind, or if there's a flavour difference in a typical Puligny Montrachet that sets it apart from Meursault. But for more commercial wines, what's the point of labelling by appellation if the wine simply tastes of the grape variety it is made of?

When appellations are used as brands, everyone who is entitled to use the appellation name on their bottles has a share in the equity of that brand, and stands to benefit. It's like a bank account which has 300 users, all of whom are able to take out the same amount from this account. But who pays into this account? The contributions are voluntary: all 300 are allowed to decide how much they wish to contribute. This doesn't sound like a terribly bright idea to me, unless you are dealing with people who display exemplary altruistic behaviour.

It's the growers who do good work and make high quality wines who build the equity of the brand. Growers who perform poorly still get to benefit, and thus the subtle commercial pressure is for growers to cut corners. As long as their wine is still good enough to pass the test that decides whether it can use the name (usually a low hurdle; the tests are toothless), and is made observing the production criteria (as an example, the specification on yields is in practice meaningless because growers can crop much higher than permitted yields and just not pick beyond the maximum), they get a share in the brand equity.

So, with Oddbins selection, we have appellations as brands, but in this case backed up by the Oddbins name as a guarantee of quality. We're being asked to trust Oddbins to have sourced some good examples of these appellations, which are trading on their origins to woo consumers. Have they succeeded?

In short, no. But let's try to be a bit more constructive. The Chablis isnft a bad wine: itfs fruity and accessible, but it doesn't really taste like Chablis should. It lacks personality. The Sancerre is similarly personality-free – again, not a bad wine, but not a terribly good one. The Pouilly-Fume is a little edgier, but it's still no more than averagely good. The reds don't fare much better. The Bourgogne is quite fresh and fruity; drinkable without being more-ish. The Chateauneuf is a disappointment. If I'd tried it blind, I'd have placed it in the new world, with its jammy fruit. It's superficially tasty, but with its forced flavours the appeal is short-lived. It doesn't taste much like any good Chateauneuf I've had before, lacking sense of place which is surely the point of these wines. The Bordeaux, probably the best of the bunch, in part because its low asking price doesn't raise expectations too high, shows very approachable, ripe, forward blackcurrant and blackberry fruit that don't make me think of Bordeaux. Letfs face it, this is an improvement on most Bordeaux at this price in that it's fruity and tasty, but this 'improvement' comes at the price of a loss of identity.

A further comment on closure choice. All six of the wines were sealed with Nomacorcs, extruded synthetic closures. Two are sealed with short (38 mm) Nomacorcs; the other four are sealed with even shorter (and presumably even cheaper) versions which look incredibly low budget. This is creating entirely the wrong impression from the start. Therefs nothing wrong about good quality plastic corks in the right context. This is the wrong context.

Oddbins Selection Chablis 2006 (£9.99)
Fresh fruity nose. Palate is bright and open with a bit of straw character, some acid and just a hint of minerality. Inoffensive, but lacks real character or quality, despite its drinkability. Tamed Chablis. Very good 83/100

Oddbins Selection Bourgogne Rouge 2006 (£6.99)
Quite deep coloured. Shy nose. Palate shows juicy, quite vibrant dark cherry and raspberry fruit with a bit of spicy tannin. Quite juicy with a nice fruity quality. It's a nice quaffer, if a bit extracted. Very good 84/100

Oddbins Selection Châteauneuf du Pape 2006 (£12.99)
Deep coloured. Robust, fruity forward nose with rich red fruits and a bit of damson/plum character. The palate shows vibrant juicy fruit that's a bit jammy and extracted. Very rich and sweet: a commercial style. Very good 84/100

Oddbins Selection Sancerre 2006 (£9.99)
Grassy and fresh on the nose. Quite crisp and aromatic. The palate is bright and fruity with a subtly minerally edge. Simple and fruity. Very good 83/100

Oddbins Selection Pouilly Fumé 2006 (£8.99)
Attractive fresh, bright grassy nose. There's some green freshness on the palate which has some presence. Quite focused with a lemony finish. Attractive. Very good+ 86/100

Oddbins Selection Bordeaux 2006 (£5.99)
Dark, sweet, chocolatey blackcurrant fruit nose with a subtle minerally, gravelly edge. The palate has sweet, almost jammy blackcurrant and blackberry fruit. Mouthfilling and ripe, this tastes quite sweet. With the jammy fruit this would be hard to spot as a Bordeaux. Very accessible: is there some residual sugar here? Very good 84/100

Wines tasted 06/07
Wines available from www.oddbins.com  

User comment:

From Rob Malcolm, Summertown Wine Cafe, Oxford

Wine Communism
I agree on your comments re the appellation controllee system. I call it wine communism.  If we were all wired to be altruistic then communism is surely a better system than capitalism.  Sadly we're not.  Mankind spent the whole of the 20th Century giving communism a fair go.  It failed because we found out that basic greed and fear override any altruistic notions we can construct.  The absurdities of communism with technocrats trying to centrally plan outcomes and employing more and more complex red tape to try and control everything finally became too much.  The competing system of capitalism built upon the solid, if extremely unpleasant, foundations of greed and fear is now the almost universal 'operating system' for us to get on with things.  But not if you're a European wine maker. The appellation controllee system is wine communism: it's a throw-back to a time when communism was a bona fide competing system with capitalism.  It needs to go - the whole lot.  We have trade mark law and consumer labelling laws that allow both the winery and the consumer perfectly adequate protection of their respective rights and needs.  Perhaps the new French President is brave enough to take on the technocrats?

Oddbins Pricing
As a fellow retailer of wine I am intrigued by the diverse price points they have chosen for the range:
Ch 9 Popes £13
Chablis and Sancerre £10
Pouilly Fume £9
Red Burgundy £7 (is it just me that finds "Bourgogne" an unpleasant name?)
Red Bordeaux £6
How did they come up with those prices?  It looks suspiciously like cost plus a percentage mark up.
What are customers meant to think of the different prices?  It seems to be a very confusing signal about quality to the customer.
What would you think if you were the President of the Bordeaux AOC?  Ouch.
Rob Malcolm
Summertown Wine Cafe
38 South Parade

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