Can you really trust special offers to offer you something special?
TO AVOID converting sterling to the euro for every price mentioned, 0.71 sterling equals one euro, approximately. I mention this because it’s mainly English magazines and newspapers that offer these ‘unbeatable’ wine offers. Having browsed through enough of them to conclude that there isn’t much difference between any of them – I’ve chosen this one as a good example.
The offer is one dozen wines for just £44.99. You get three different whites (two bottles of each) and the same in red. This works out at £3.75 (5.27 euros) per bottle, which looks a reasonable buy. However, p&p costs £5.99, which brings the price of each bottle up to £4.25. So, I go ahead and buy this special offer, a case at £4.25 a bottle and, on opening one of the reds, I decide I don’t like it. There’s nothing wrong with the wine, it’s just too dry. Even if I persevere and drink it, I’m not going to open the second bottle. Now, through no fault of mine, I’m only getting 11 bottles for £50.98 including p&p. This is £4.63 a bottle. If that happens with one of the whites, the cost per bottle is £5.09 and, if there are any more wines I don’t like, the price goes up accordingly.
So, are these good buys? In my opinion, unless you know the wines, the answer is no. In the example, there isn’t one wine that is classified. In fact, there are four bottles of Australian wine, which don’t seem to have any controls at all. They win medals, but what was the opposition like? We’re never told, so we don’t know how good or bad the losers were.
Argentina’s Malena Shiraz Malbec is an odd one. I searched for the word Shiraz on the label, but couldn’t find it. It should be there because of the two grapes used – it’s the first grape mentioned in the tasting notes, which means it’s the main grape. I found Malbec, but no Shiraz. In their advertisement, they call the wine Shiraz, but they don’t mention Malbec – very strange indeed.
Another offer I saw included a free bottle of Vintage Port, but the picture showed an LBV Port. When I phoned about it, I was told it was a printer’s error. Don’t people read proofs anymore before authorising publication?
The reality is that, when you buy one of these specials, you buy a ‘pig in a poke’. The notes say one of the reds is ‘richer’, but richer than what? Other words sometimes used are from the Masters of Wine vocabulary, which some of them don’t even understand. Words like ‘crunchy’, ‘silky’, ‘nervy’, ‘charming’ and ‘stylish’ (wears its cap on its ear). The real wine drinkers of this world wouldn’t know, or care, what they mean. The advert promises, however, to replace or refund, if not entirely satisfied. How many people would bother?
I prefer to visit my local wine shop or supermarket, and buy there. They usually have very good offers and you can pick up wines for £3.33 a bottle, or less. You can also read the label, which is a mine of information if it’s a classified wine. Portuguese shops also have good offers, if you look for them. But do read the label.
I had an email recently, part of which read: “As a wine writer, I am sure you are aware of the bureaucracy that is involved with the classification of wines here in Portugal.” Yes, I’m aware of the wine classification here, but I certainly wouldn’t call it bureaucracy. Portugal was the first to introduce a classification back in the 18th century for Port. France followed in the 1930s and then, gradually, all Western European countries brought in systems. Without some sort of control, the wine market could be flooded with falsified and imitation wines like it was in the Fifties.
US wine, labelled as being produced in the Napa Valley, can, by law, use a percentage of grapes grown in other Californian counties. In New Zealand, grapes are often blended from the South Island and the North Island.
I did an exercise in a supermarket on Australian wines. I chose five wines all from the Shiraz grape, representing the five Australian wine regions. The prices ranged from £4.95 to £9.90, and were all 2002 vintage. There wasn’t anything on the labels to say which wine was the best, so price was your guide, and that is not a sensible way to buy wine. Meanwhile, information on European labels tells you which wine is the better in quality. In Portugal, they are, in order of quality, DOC, IPR, VR and Vinho de Mesa.
Call ‘classifications’ bureaucracy if you wish, but before criticising the system, dwell on the alternative for a moment. Do you really want to have your Chablis served in a wine bar, from a pump, as in the US? Or, our quality wines could be decided by Gold, Silver and Bronze medals? Would you like a New World Port style wine flooding the market? Or, do we trust the present system of classification, which guarantees maximum yield per acre, minimum alcohol content, use of specific grapes grown in the region, and that the wine is actually made in the region? I think I’d stick with the present system.