You are not like every other supermarket. You were the first to sell organic food in the UK. You have a royal warrant to supply the Queen. You are owned by your employees. And through your wine business you have won much respect, including mine.
That is until you sold me a bottle of "Piesporter Michelsberg" under the label of "Legends of Germany" as "one of the most renowned wines of Germany". Admittedly, this has not the same shocking ring to it as labelling horsemeat as beef, nor is it a health risk or illegal. And yet you are misleading your customers, thereby damaging the image of a product you and others have worked hard to restore to former glory: German wine.
Tasting wines blind can be cruel. I wonder if Rober Parker Jr. or Jancis Robinson have been there before - that red-faced moment when you realise that what you thought was, say, the 1990 Médoc was in fact the 2001 Lemberger from Württemberg, that where you thought you were on the safe side, you've been as wrong about the identity of two wines as you can possibly be. That sinking feeling. That barely disguised glee in the eyes of the other participants, who knew all along. If so, cheer up, Robert and Jancis, we've been there as well. If you have followed our blind tasting adventures so far, you may get the impression that we have an uncanny tendency to end up there as soon as the paper bags come off, but if so, we do all this in the spirit of selfless sacrifice and journalistic objectivity.
But let's take a step back from the brink of embarassment, and meet the two colour-coded contestants henceforth to be known as Green and Blue. Here is what we knew: One was a classic, somewhat pricey bottle of the very finest English sparkling, provided by London Wine Rambler Torsten, who may be the German-speaking world's most tireless advocate for English Sparklers. The other was a bottle of Vouvray Brut for a mere third of that price, and with absolutely nothing to lose. Not much hope for the underdog, was there?
Australia vs Germany - after several blind tasting country battles here at the Wine Rambler this one is a little more difficult to sell. For last year's epic England vs Germany battle we could fall back on 1966, and other blind tastings have their respective stereotypes. But A v G? Football matches, yes, but epic? Dramatic battles - well, El Alamein, but the Australian part there is not really part of popular culture. So what remains is to stay in the wine world and announce an epic match between two of the world's prime producers of Riesling.
Still, there is a little twist. Australia is, after all, mostly know for dry Riesling - but in today's match it sends an off-dry wine against a similarly specked Mosel Riesling. Dong, dong, let the match being.
In what has become a Wine Rambler tradition, whenever we get a full committee meeting (Wine Ramblers proper and significant others) together, we do a little blind tasting comparing two wines that ought in theory be very similar on the basis of grape variety, style or pricing. This time, two aged Cabernet-based Bordeaux blends, one an actual mid-range Bordeaux, Chateau Poujeaux 1994, the other a Napa Valley classic, Mayacamas 1992. Braised vension, red cabbage, Spätzle and chestnuts were on hand to keep the contestants company.
We had been wrong before - and so uncorked bottle No. 1 with due concentration and a sense of humility.
The trio of "Liebfraumilch", "Piesporter" and "Blue Nun" represent the cheapest German wines available in the export market. They are infamous for giving German wine the image of sweet, headache-inducing plonk. But what do British consumers do? They still buy them. En mass. The power of the cheap side is too strong in these wines. Clearly, all the Wine Rambler's preaching has been in vain. And so one day I found myself in desperation considering a range of unthinkable options, ranging from jumping off a bridge to pouring Liebfraumilch over myself and then setting myself alight in front of Tesco. That will teach 'em!
However, as I am afraid of heights and as Liebfraumilch is too weak to burn I had to come up with a different idea. I decided to change tack and, instead of shouting "rubbish", to give constructive advice. I risked my palate and ventured out to learn which of the infamous three was the best. This called for an epic, scientific blind-tasting battle, a painful self-experimentation endured in the interest of humanity's greater good: Liebfraumilch, Piesporter, Blue Nun, which one is it going to be?
A friend of mine gave me ten little bottles / Of some special stuff that he brewed up his-self / So I took it and hid it down in my basement / But my wife found out about it and she told me to get rid of it or else / And since I didn't like the way she said or else / I went down there and proceeded to carry out her instructions [...] Picked up the first bottle, pulled the cork out of it...
It did not quite happen like this. Admittedly, there was a basement. And I went down there. Picked up a bottle. Or two. Actually, there were 74. Also, they were not small. And despite the time it will have taken him to put it all together, I am fairly certain host Robert Giorgione did not brew them up by his-self. Even so, he managed to get Riesling from all over the world to London for a blind tasting that I could not miss. And so I went down there and proceeded...
When the two Wine Ramblers met in London early in June to celebrate one year of wine rambling, it was obvious that we had to do a blind tasting. Because of our increasing interest in sparkling and English wine the choice of wine was easy: get an English sparkler and a German Sekt and then let's have the two of them slug it out.
It would be 1966 all over again, Geoff Hurst facing Helmut Haller. The bottle is round and finishing it takes 90 minutes (or so). So, who will win the 2010 battle of the sparklers? And will it tell us anything about the England vs. Germany match at the 2010 world cup?
Wine Rambler full committee meeting. Two Sauvignon Blancs nice and cool, ready for the first sip. The tasting would nominally be blind, but it should be a walk in the park to tell them apart. One from New Zealand, Astrolabe's 2008 "Discovery": more explosively, exotically fruity, surely. One from Germany, the 2008 Meersburger Sängerhalde Sauvignon Blanc from Aufricht, the Lake Constance's ambitious star horse: more subdued, but with more depth and minerality, maybe? We knew what we were doing, we had done it before. It would be a pleasant evening with a laid-back broadening of wine horizons.
Glasses rinsed, monkfish and shrimp already in the frying pan, wine ramblers contented and full of calm anticipation. What could possibly go wrong?
Wine Rambler full committee meeting. Two sauvignon blancs nice and cool, ready for the first sip. The tasting would nominally be blind, but it should be a walk in the park to tell them apart. One from New Zealand: more explosively, exotically fruity, surely. One from Germany: more subdued, but with more depth and minerality, maybe? We knew what we were doing, we had done it before. It would be a pleasant evening with a laid-back broadening of wine horizons. Glasses rinsed, loup de mer and shrimp already in the frying pan, wine ramblers contented and full of calm anticipation. What could possibly go wrong?
Check back here soon for the full story of a blind tasting that confronted us with rather more than we had bargained for.
As Albus Dumbledore said to Harry Potter: "It is a thrilling tale. I wish to do it justice"
Since the well-remembered Silvaner symposium, Wine Rambler full committee meetings have regularly featured a pair of wines with a characteristic similarity (grape variety and vintage, mostly) that we taste without knowing which is which. Is this a sensible thing to do? The detractors of tasting blind argue two things: It favours bolder, more easily understandable wines at the expense of quieter, more refined types, thereby contributing to a levelling of taste and the loss of originality and regionality in wine. It also, in their view, turns tasting wine, which should be about enjoyment and open minds, into a sort of competitive sport. Valid concerns, surely, but we keep finding that without putting your own palate to the test once in a while, you lay yourself open to the twin dangers of preconceived notions and of auto-suggestion ("Label says this has notes of ripe blackberries. Yeah, I think I'm picking them up..."). So we're stumbling on with the blind tastings.
The wine rambler wraps up this years Silvaner seasons with a blind tasting match. A creamy risotto of caramelised apples, sage and roasted walnuts is on the plates, and two dry 2008 Silvaner Kabinetts are waiting in the glasses of our carefully selected jury.
One hails from the franconian Silvaner heartland, from a nobleman's renowned estate, the other from a young self-described wine grower ("Weinbauer") of the palatine lowlands, as far from Germany's wine nobility as you can possibly get, but with a fierce love for the Silvaner grape. An uneven match, and, what with two completely different bottle shapes, a logistically demanding one. Ok, then, Casteller Hohnart from Castell and just plain Silvaner from Lukas Krauß, let's have a good clean fight from the two of you, no low punches or artificial aromas.
Two rosés from the languedoc, both predominantly Syrah, with some Grenache, Cinsault and Carignan, one from Paul Mas, via Jacques Weindepot, around 5 €, the other from Olivier Jullien, via K & U, around 12 €.
Up went the brown paper, professionally applied and stylishly decorated by my lovely assistant, who deserves very special mention. Those sharp of eye and quick of wit will quickly see which is which, but for 24 hours, I had no way of knowing. You can follow the links any time you get bored.
Remember the recent Wine Guide controversy and the related question of whether wine should always be tasted blind? The Wine Rambler is now setting an example with our first blind tasting: can a mass-produced supermarket wine stand against an entry level wine of the German wine elite?