Gold Star wines

NOffLA Gold Star symbol

NOffLA Gold Star symbol.

TODAY in The Irish Examiner I’m taking a look at what’s what in the Gold Star Awards. That’s the collective name given to 15 wines selected through a process of blind tastings and now available in about 350 independent off-licences nationwide — the  members of the National Off-Licence Association (NOffLA) which organises the scheme.

It’s essentially a marketing promotion intended to give those hundreds of disparate retailers a national profile and a united, comprehensible offering for wine fans. You could think of this as the indie offies joining two big power blocks — the big wine brands in one corner, and the big multiples and symbol groups in the other — in a sort of winey Mexican stand-off. The full list is of course available on the NoffLA site or in the instore brochures. Of the 15 I thought these hereunder stood out…

Old World White — Under 8 B&G Fleur de Vigne Ugni Blanc Colombard 2007 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne
Old World White — Under
14 Cave de St Dezery Viognier 2007 Vin de Pays d’Oc France
New World White Under 14 Wakefield Estate Clare Valley Riesling 2008, South Australia
Old World Red Under 8 Canti Negroamaro Zinfandel 2008, Puglia Italy
Old World Red — Under 14 Campo Viejo Reserva 2005, Rioja Spain
New World Red — Under 14 Secreto Carménère 2008 Colchagua Valley Chile
New World Red — Under €20 Montes Alpha Merlot 2006, Colchagua Valley Chile


Nominees and winners lined up at the NOffLA tasting

Nominees and winners lined up at the NOffLA tasting

Down the years I’ve often been delighted by the Gold Star selections. There have been lots of cracking wines among them, often lesser-known styles that really do deserve more exposure. This year’s stars are no exception.

B&G Ugni Blanc Colombard

B+G Fleur de Vigne Ugni Blanc Colombard

Consider for instance the ugni blanc colombard blend style from  the south west of France. It’s a fantastic light lemony style that I think will appeal to white wine lovers; it’s as cheap as chips and the south west of France is awash in it. There are far too few examples of this friendly house wine blend coming into this country, the most recent addition being a smashing one at Curious Wines. So say hello and welcome to your nearest off-licence the winner of the NOffLA Old World White — Under €8 category, the B&G Fleur de Vigne Ugni Blanc Colombard 2007 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne.

See today’s Irish Examiner for my magnificent seven – the best of the Gold Star wines.

Unsurprisingly, Mackenway Wines scored wins for three of its wines, two of which are further honoured as red and white wine of the year respectively. I say unsurprisingly because they have a great track record in the awards. It’s yet again a tribute to the collective palates of small indigenous independent company and they deserve great credit for it. But there’s more. A quick tasting through all of Mackenway’s nominated wines – suggested to me that practically all of the Gold Star collection could have been drawn from their portfolio.

I must say though I’m puzzled by what I see as a missed opportunity in the sparkling wine category. I’d have skipped over all three nominees in favour of one of the growing crowd of slightly off-dry, light, basic NV Champagne-style sparklers. It should’ve been a cinch to find a cracking sparkler well within the category price threshold – a whopping €25.

The winner (Pere Ventura Cava Rosat Semi Sec) and one of the nominees (Beringer Sparkling Rosé) are entirely legitimate sweet and simple pink fizz. But there are degrees of simplicity and sweetness, and I think either of these will leave most wine fans cold.

The third bubbly nominee (Yellowtail Bubbles) is an even more puzzling choice. To me it seems to have an intrusive candy character, the closest aromatic metaphor I can come up with harks back to school days – Golf Ball bubble gum. The Yellowtail range is certainly popular, one of the biggest brands in the world, especially the US. I just don’t get it.

I suspect the reason for the rather unusual selection lies not in the blind tasting selection process, but in limitations imposed by the way the 600+ candidate wines are considered. Crucially, they are submitted by importers rather than being selected. Eliminate big brands (such as Jacob’s Creek) symbol group exclusives (for instance Nugan Estate available only through Musgrave SuperValu Centra) and the tasters may have ended up with a very limited selection to choose from.

While the Pere Ventura will find favour with fans of blush, its presence on this “best-of” type list may hinder the flowering of our appreciation of good value sparkling wines: Someone who knows NV Champagne and picks up a bottle of this to pinch back their budget may identify it with the emerging international sparkling wine tradition – and end up dismissing it forever as an unsatisfying frivolity. More is the shame if that happens.

I did find something interesting going on in the Champagne category though. Normally the C-word barely detains my interest as it’s just too dear. But I think the tasting crew hit the nail on the head in the Champagnes Under €50 category with Mumm Cordon Rouge NV. I find it hard to recommend it because of the price. And coincidentally, I recently posted here about Mumm’s remarkable campaign of advertising, sponsorship and product placement.  But its relative subtle breathy oaty quality, when set against the somewhat less accessible Moet and Feuillatte, may make it popular among people who can (and want to) spend that kind of cash.

John? Rody? Your table awaits.  ♦

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