Champagne under £8? I review Tesco's Pol Aimé Champagne NV on camera

champagne pol aime

Tesco are currently running a 25% off 6 bottles or more of wine. This offer includes their Pol Aimé Champagne, which is currently listed at £9.95. So with the multi-bottle discount, this brings the price down to £7.46. This makes it the cheapest Champagne I’ve seen for sale in the UK for practically ever. Champagne under £8? Has to be undrinkable, yes? I was curious so I picked up a bottle and reviewed it live on camera. Here’s my review, first take, as I try to assess whether or not this is money well spent.

Here’s the link to Pol Aimé on Tesco’s website. The product description is very interesting.

In the Tejo region of Portugal

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I’ve spent the day in the Tejo region of Portugal. I left my hotel at 0745 and arrived back past 11 pm. During that time I visited six producers, had lunch, and had dinner, so there was no free time and I have only enough energy left for a quick blog post. With some pictures.

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The headline? This is a region that was until recently a source of inexpensive table wines, with Lisbon – a strong market – very close. The yields that can be achieved on some of the alluvial terroirs here are quite heroic, and decent whites can be made at 20 tons/hectare. But of late, Tejo has decided it wants to make better wines. And it can, without dropping yields all that much, which means that it can make good wines at good prices.

The Tejo

The Tejo

Freshness is the key. This is a region that delivers lovely natural acidity. Zippy whites are its strength, and focused, bright reds, too. But too often the enologists like to try to trick the reds up, by using oak (often chips and staves) and other products. This is a shame: these interventions often get in the way of the lovely vivid fruit.

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I saw enough potential in two other styles of wines that led me to believe they have a strong future in the region: sparkling and rosé. Good Prosecco-like fizz can be made here at competitive price points, because the grapes often achieve ripeness at 11% alcohol and high natural acidity. And it’s also a region that can make lovely pure, fresh rosé. Producers here are just beginning to make these styles of wines, but given the growth in both categories, it makes sense to focus more on them.

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I’ll be writing more later. Suffice to say that I made some nice discoveries, and there’s good potential for Tejo wines in the marketplace.

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Why English Sparkling Wine producers need to export

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There’s a lot of excitement about English sparkling wine at the moment. Justifiably so. But there is one small cloud on the horizon.

It’s called route to market. Soon, because of all the new vineyards that have been planted over the last decade, there will be quite a bit of wine that needs selling. And the ability to shift lots of wine requires appropriate routes to market. This is where there could be a bit of a bottleneck.

The quality is there. The price is right (in the £20-£30 sweet spot, which is just a little below the price of well known Grand Marque Champagnes). The British public certainly like bubbles: we’re the largest export market for Champagne, guzzling 33 million bottles annually.

Theoretically, the growth in English sparkling wine could come at the expense of Champagne sales, plus some extra sparkling wine category growth. But the issue will be getting wine into people’s hands. Currently, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer are offering decent English sparkling wine ranges, but their lists are close to saturation point, and there’s only so much wine they can sell. Restaurants are beginning to wake up to the potential of selling English fizz, especially by the glass. But there, English producers are fighting against an efficient Champagne sales machine, that often buys the right to by the glass pours.

The nightmare scenario is one of over-supply and distressed sales of stock, pushing the price down, which would damage the English sparkling wine brand. The other worry is poor quality buyer’s own brand English sparkling wine: if this is a punter’s first experience of English fizz, this will be a shame and could well turn them off. Lidl have an English sparkling wine in their range and it isn’t very good, for example.

If English sparkling wine is to achieve its potential, then two things are needed. First, anyone with any volume to shift will probably have to hire an experienced trade salesperson – for example, Hattingley Valley have recently done this. These wines will need selling.

Secondly, export is going to be key. While demand is given time to grow in the UK, sparkling wine producers should look to establish export sales. Ridgeview, for example, expect to sell 30% of their production abroad in 2016. At ProWein this year there was a strong English sparkling presence, and the wines seemed to be well received. Even if export isn’t currently essential, now is the time to begin working with partners in other markets. Even if only small quantities are sold, these markets will take time to mature, and it’s much better to begin working now rather than start focusing on exports in a panic in a few years time.

English sparkling wine is getting a lot of attention, but the wave hasn’t come yet. When that wave of opportunity comes – having lots of wine to sell, and export markets interested in it – it’s vital that the key producers are ready to catch it. Now is definitely the time to start focusing on foreign sales.

Tasting three commercial wines on camera: YellowTail, Jacob's Creek and Barefoot

yellowtailjacobscreekbarefoot

I found myself in a supermarket. In the wine aisle. I always have a look in the wine aisle: it’s important to see how normal people experience wine. Even if I’m not planning to buy wine (and I rarely do in supermarkets), I’ll take some time looking at the retailer’s range. You don’t get this experience from a press tasting; you need to actually visit stores.

On a whim, I picked up some bottles. I wanted to taste some of the best sellers, and do it on camera. Offer an honest verdict on these wines, bearing in mind the market segment they are made for. I chose three reds, all priced similarly (two were £5.50 and one was £5.40). Considering that £2.08 of the price of each is tax, and then a further 20% is VAT, these are pretty close to the bottom of the market. Here are the videos I shot of me tasting them. One I liked more than the others, just because it was more honest.

 
 

Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay 2012

neudorf moutere chardonnay

Neudorf are one of New Zealand’s most famous wineries. They’re based in the Nelson region, where the first vines of the modern era were planted on South Island, and of late they’ve had some hugely positive press, including Bob Campbell’s first 100 point score (Bob is probably the most famous Kiwi wine journalist).

I like their wines a good deal, and particularly the Chardonnays, which are just lovely. New Zealand Chardonnay is a relatively untold story, but it’s one that I’m following.

Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay 2012 Nelson, New Zealand
Powerful and spicy, and beginning to show its first signs of development, with a subtle buttery edge to the pear and white peach fruit. There’s a lively citrus core here and good acidity, and also some toasty richness. Really fine and expressive. 94/100

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The 1855 Classification of Bordeaux's Médoc

Bordeaux 1855 classification

When I was first getting into wine, one of the things that fascinated me most was the 1855 classification of Bordeaux’s Médoc. Coming to wine with little knowledge and no education, I all found it rather daunting. I remember reading Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide that a friend had by their toilet, and finding it really useful: here was a way to identify the best wines. But it was the 1855 classification that fascinated me the most: just what I wanted. A clear ranking system. The top Château were divided into five classes of growth, in a sort of pyramid, with the first growths at the top, on the basis of the price that their wines were fetching.

So I began to look through the shops to see whether I could find bottles that represented the various classes of growths. I was very excited to try Château Léoville Barton 1982, because this was a second growth, and it cost the princely sum of £30 (this was 23 years ago; average salaries haven’t doubled, but the price of fine wine certainly has, and more). I tried a 1975 Montrose (another second) that a friend had bought. Most of the Bordeaux I could find wasn’t classed at all, and then there was the right bank which was terribly confusing because it wasn’t included in this classification but still used ‘Grand Cru Classé’ on the label.

The 1855 classification is simply brilliant. It’s a superb marketing tool, and has helped the left bank properties of the Médoc and Pessac-Leognan who are included in it a great deal. But the remarkable thing about it is that it was devised in 1855, when Bordeaux was very different to how it is today. At the time, phylloxera hadn’t hit and the vines were still on their own roots. There was a vastly higher proportion of Malbec being grown there in those days (Merlot was just a minor player), and winemaking would have been quite simple. But even though so much has changed since, the classification still looks pretty good. In part, it’s because it has affected the revenue of each Château, and so it is self-fulfilling because this ability to invest will affect quality. But its enduring nature suggests that it more-or-less captured the quality of the terroirs through the proxy of price.

Should it be revised? In 1973, Mouton Rothschild was promoted to first growth, but this is the only significant change of this type. We know of lower ranking Château such as Lynch Bages and Pontet Canet who really should be up in the second growth level. But one of the strengths about this classification is that it is unchanging, and thus not subject to political wrangling and legal challenge, as has occurred when Saint-Emilion has tried to revise its own classification.

Still, it would be interesting to see what a revision might look like. Liv-Ex have for the last few years been drawing up their own revised classification of left bank Bordeaux properties on the same basis that the 1855 version was established: market prices for the wines. It makes for interesting reading, and with just a few exceptions, you can’t really argue with it. They have also examined the top right bank wines, and the top second wines would fit into this classification, and this also makes interesting reading.

One thing is for sure: if there revision were decided by committee, with a tasting panel, then it would quickly be mired in politics. A tasting panel, even of experts, can make mistakes. Over a long enough period, the market rarely does. So the 1855 Classification stands, and it is the envy of wine growing regions throughout the rest of the world.

 

Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2015 impresses

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I’m a fan of Sauvignon Blanc. I know it’s not very wine geeky, but I really like it. And this is one of the best. I bought a case of the 2014, and it went pretty quickly, which is something that can’t be said for all my case purchases. I find that if you buy 12 of the same wine, often by the end of the case you end up wishing you’d bought just six. Not this stuff.

The 2015 is currently tasting just beautiful. It’s so delicate, aromatic, pure and precise, showing none of the clumsy flavours that Marlborough Sauvignon can sometimes have when it’s not handled very well. It’s a pristine wine and I’d buy it to drink now for this lovely aromatic precision, although this will no doubt age quite well, also.

Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
So aromatic with lovely pear and passionfruit. Very floral and open, but with delicate grapefruit, too. The palate is crisp and transparent with lovely lemon, pear and lively grapefruit characters. So exotic, fresh and precise with amazing focus and freshness. 93/100

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Champagne Dom Perignon P2 1998

domperignon1998

It’s hard to taste a famous wine with a completely clear mind. Sometimes you are wary about giving too high a score: would you have liked it as much if it was tasted blind? Or you might knock it back a bit, just because it’s a celebrity wine. It was nice to drink this a few weeks ago, and even nicer to find that it lived up to its reputation. So, my score is my score.

Champagne Dom Perignon P2 1998 France
Beautifully elegant, finely toasty, perfumed creamy pear and peach fruit with precise citrus fruit. Such a lovely aroma here – developed but pure and perfect. Hazelnut, toast, ripe apples, even some glacé cherries. Bready and fine. 96/100
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Bordeaux: some reflections

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I’ve just spent a very enjoyable couple of days in Bordeaux. The first was a free afternoon (I walked and walked), followed by dinner; the second a big tasting of the 2014 vintage. So here are some thoughts about Bordeaux, in no particular order.

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First, this is a lovely city to visit. The changes enacted under the leadership of mayor Alain Juppe over the last couple of decades have seen Bordeaux completely transformed, and it’s now a beautifully functioning city, making the most of its situation on the left bank of the Garonne. It has a bit of the feel of the south, but also something of the north. It’s easy to navigate by foot, and there’s also a modern tram service. It’s predominantly a low-rise city with long, straight roads, and is based around attractive buildings made from limestone. Many of these limestone buildings have been cleaned, and they look quite beautiful.

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As a wine region? Bordeaux is the world’s largest fine wine region, and the most important. Simple. But there’s more to Bordeaux than just the celebrity wines. There are a lot of winegrowers who don’t make much money, producing cheap wines that no one really wants all that much. Somewhere in between there’s some pretty good wine, and that’s a story not often told. There’s also quite a bit of decent white wine made in the region, as well as some great sweet wines.

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I like the business model of the typical mid- to high-end Bordeaux chateau. The focus is on making a Grand Vin, and in some cases a second or even a third wine. But the main story, and the bulk of the volume, is a single wine. This makes it a region that normal people can understand quite well. Because many of the properties are quite large, there’s also quite a bit of this Grand Vin produced. This means it can spread across many markets, and people can try it more easily than they can, for example, a top-end Burgundy. So we wine lovers can talk of the 1996 Leoville Barton, and compare it with the 2000, because there’s a good chance we can get hold of it and we may well have tasted it several times. This makes Bordeaux a rewarding region for collectors.

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This simplicity is a key aspect to the broad appeal of Bordeaux wines to the trade, collectors and drinkers. It’s actually this last group that is most important, because someone has to drink the stuff. I worry slightly that too much Bordeaux is traded, kept in large warehouses, and treated as an asset. Unless someone is drinking it, it’s a bubble in the making. A bit like the Amsterdam tulips of the 18th century, it could be developing a value aside from its practical purpose as a drink.

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Finally, a comment on the Primeurs and the Place – the way that Bordeaux is sold. It’s an incredibly efficient system for distributing wine. Without it, Chateaux would find it much more expensive to sell their wines, and the system would be much less efficient. Prices would rise. Yes, some of the top Chateaux are selling less at Primeurs, holding some production back. But only a few can afford to do this. As long as prices for 2015 are sensible, I think we’ll see the Primeurs return to health this year after a few shaky years. It won’t be plain sailing, though.

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Visiting Château Marquis d'Alesme, Margaux, for the opening of a grand winery

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Last night I was one of a group who visited Château Marquis d’Alesme on the occasion of the opening of their new winery in Margaux.

marquis d'anselme winery

The winery

The estate, which has 15 hectares of vines, was bought by Hubert Perrodo in 2006. Perrodo, a French national, built up a successful petrochemical company (Perenco), of which he was the sole owner. He bought his first wine estate, Château Labégorce (also in Margaux) in 1989. Sadly, he died in 2006, but his wife, Carrie, has continued to run his business interests. The two wine estates are being run by his daughter, Nathalie Perrodo, who is aged just 35.  There’s an interesting feature on the Perrodo family here. They are properly wealthy.

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With Marquis d’Alesme, they are putting their money to good use. The new winery, which has been a three-year project, is quite stunning. It combines classic Bordeaux style with a distinctly Chinese twist. This is because Carrie Perrodo is Singapore Chinese, and in a previous life was a model. She set up a successful modelling agency in Singapore called Carrie’s Models. The design theme for the winery was to include Chinese symbols inspired by the forbidden city in Beijing.

The VIP building moved stone by stone from Labegorce

The VIP building moved stone by stone from Labegorce

As well as the winery, there’s the delightful, slightly rustic visitor centre where we had dinner, and also a VIP reception building. This was originally at Labégorce, but was relocated – moved stone by stone – to Alesme.

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We tasted the last four vintages of each of the Perrodo properties. Michel Rolland, who consults here, also joined us.

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Château Marquis d’Alesme 2012 Margaux, Bordeaux, France
Fresh and expressive with some grip and a bit of savouriness. Hints of spice and earth. This is quite ripe, but it’s nicely balanced with lovely texture and some chalky tannins. 93/100

Château Marquis d’Alesme 2013 Margaux, Bordeaux, France
Vivid blackcurrant and spice notes, with spice and cedar. Fresh, vivid and woody with a spicy palate that has grippy structure. Still primary and quite cedary with a drying finish. 89/100

Château Marquis d’Alesme 2014 Margaux, Bordeaux, France
Nice density here. Youthful, gripped and vivid with structured red and black fruits. This has nice density and weight, and shows real promise. This is the final blend, but isn’t bottled yet. 92-94/100

Château Marquis d’Alesme 2015 Margaux, Bordeaux, France
This primeur sample is very flattering and pretty, so it’s hard to give a definitive verdict. It’s seductively aromatic with sweet blackcurrant fruit, and there’s a chocolatey edge to the concentrated fruit. Looks like a very good vintage. 92-94/100

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Château Labégorce 2012 Margaux, Bordeaux, France
Supple with a hint of greenness. Fleshy but bright with nice precision and texture. A lovely wine with real drinkability. 92/100

Château Labégorce 2103 Margaux, Bordeaux, France
Fresh and a bit cedar with some bright berry fruits and drying, grippy tannins. A bit pinched, showing nice focus but a bit too much structure for the fruit. 88/100

Château Labégorce 2014 Margaux, Bordeaux, France
Fresh and vivid with bright, focused fruit. Midnight and attractive with red cherry and blackberry fruit. Nicely fresh. 91-93/100

Château Labégorce 2015 Margaux, Bordeaux, France
Seductive nose. Sweet and quite ripe with nice berry fruits and good balance. Has a fruit forward quality with some chocolatey notes and a bit of cedar. 92-93/100

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