Irish online wine shops

There’s an updated introduction to Irish online wine retailers below, while elsewhere on this blog is a suggested checklist for choosing an online shop, and I hope both are of some practical use to you. (There was one glaring omission in this list which I’ve rectified this morning. If you see any other amendments you think I ought to make please let me know by leaving a comment below).

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

A well-chosen line-up of rosés at O’Brien’s most recent tasting. Click it to see my review in the Irish Examiner.

While I was revising the list of shops, the thought struck me that, like the dog in the night-time, many wine business sites are interesting for what they don’t do. I’m thinking particularly of stores which don’t trade online at all.

While obviously not of direct relevance to someone who wants to shop online right now, the thought is germane to people interested in wine, which is why I’m starting with that footnote.

Many retailers, large and small, are missing a trick. I wish those trading only from physical shops would put their wines on the net in the same way as online shops do. Even though we customers obviously wouldn’t have the opportunity to click through to a till, I think the shops in question would benefit greatly from proffering that virtual shelf online. And we wine fans (and perhaps wine itself) would benefit setting such information free.

Certainly, an online placeholder might be of some use to a retailer – a rudimentary site with a store finder, opening hours, contact details etc. But by not showing the actual wines, such stores are passing up on the unique opportunity presented by the internet. Browsing a wine business’ site which doesn’t have a proper database of the wines it sells is like walking into a carefully planned shop designed by architects, laid out by professional display artists and  illumined by lighting engineers – but which doesn’t show what’s on sale nor how much it costs.

I’m thinking in particular of big retailers such as Dunnes, and franchises such as SuperValu and Carry-Out.

Often the nearest you’ll get to wine range is a PDF of the current ‘special offer’ leaflet – usually headlined by big brands (led by spirits and slabs of lager) thereby sidelining the store’s own exclusive wines. At best you’ll see only a handful of wines, rarely kept up to date and often without key specific information such as vintage. I’ve encountered cracking wines from all and would love to be able to point to a link on their sites. And so would other shoppers. Look around at social media where people are sharing hints and tips: Even a shop’s biggest fan really couldn’t be arsed putting up a link directing their friends to a site which essentially says ‘buy from us, we’re great’.   No, we want the specifics. What customers are saying online is “Got a great sauv blanc from WineCo – here’s a link with the details”.

And then there’s the search engines. Shops looking at search engine traffic will quickly discover that, in general, we aren’t searching for what the wine shop thinks of itself

award-winning red… delicious wine… small, family-owned winery… serving Ireland since 1922… you’ve tried the rest now buy the best… enjoy a drink in relaxing surroundings…

We’re far more likely to be looking for terms specific to us, such as

chenin blanc… cava… Bordeaux available in Mullingar… Chateau Wotsit 2011 half bottle…

We’re not landing on the vague sites. Or if we are, we’ll find little or nothing about what the store is selling right now.

For all the foregoing reasons, I hope wine shops, wholesalers and shoppers alike take a look at the first site here – even though it doesn’t actually sell wine.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

www.searsons.com

Searsons has been in the wine trade for about 90 years, having bought into the Davy family’s grocery business which had been operating around Dublin for most of the 19th century. They remain one of Ireland’s best importers and wholesalers, equally adept at posh high-end wines for special occasions and good solid wines at relatively approachable entry-level prices.

Unlike the wine stores listed below, the site is not a click-and-buy, but rather a shop window linking to retailers that Searson’s supplies. The site used to be the least sophisticated wine site in the world ever – merely a series of PDFs and a phone number. But it’s now a proper site allowing you browse wines and view a map showing stockists nationwide. Crucially, it also has the full name, rank and serial number (well ok, full name, appellation and vintage) of every wine. As it doesn’t sell directly, the site can’t of course tell you what the retail price is: that contract is between you and the retailer. But it does helpfully give an rrp (recommended retail price) for each. It workd as an excellent support for the independent retailers the company supplies, and a wine-finder resource for us.

There’s no such restriction on big non-online retailers, which could easily offer all the specifics and, for instance, update special offer and multiple-buy info with a few keystrokes. (Indeed there’s no reason such publicly available info couldn’t be integrated with their stock control system).

And franchises could just as easily emulate the wholesaler Searsons. Some have gone part of the way. For instance, the Carry-Out site has an excellent, well-organised interactive map of all its 50-plus franchises with full contact details. Yes there’s a special offer leaflet as described above. But no indication of its basic range.

That’s a pity. There’s nothing preventing all the franchisees agreeing to stock say a dozen or twenty basics, each in an agreed, tight price band. Suddenly anyone – bloggers, columnists, Facebookers, tweeters, TV radio pundits – could feel confident in saying ‘cracking pinot blanc in Carry-Out for €x’ knowing that it actually means something to anyone, anywhere in the country.

Now on to the online wine retailers proper, starting with the top six that I would choose first if I were buying wine for delivery right now.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

Irish online wine shops

Curious Wines website

www.curiouswines.ie

Curious Wines is an exemplary, comprehensively searchable and informative website.

Between their participation in big tastings, and snapshot samplings of parts of their range (most recently a handful of discounted wines from Bordeaux and Spain) I’ve found the store offers many terrific, good value wines.

Nicholson's

http://www.jnwine.com

Stunning list operating out of James Nicholson’s award-winning shop in Crossgar, Co Down. You’ll also find some of these at Parsons’ Wine Warehouse, Carrigaline Co Cork as well as in selected restaurants such as Star Anise on Bridge Street in Cork. In brief, Nicholsons sell a disproportionately large number of my favourite wines on the Irish market. As far as I’m aware it has another distinction as the only site that allows you to buy and deliver anywhere in Ireland or the UK — I’ve found it a godsend for sending gifts to England. Finally, make sure you select the right jurisdiction in the “Delivery Location” tab on the opening page so you see the wines priced in the right currency.

www.obrienswine.ie

The growing off-licence chain (with stores all over Leinster plus one-off outposts in Galway, Limerick and now also in Douglas, Cork) has a winning wine selection, and is also a great one-stop shop, as it also stocks a wide range of good beers and ciders too. Their most recent tasting  confirmed again its expertise with an imaginative well-chosen range including some cracking good value.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

www.wineonline.ie

Excellent site featuring hundreds of wines from everyday sippers to special interest bottles.

www.winesdirect.ie

One of the first wine retailers online (now in its 20th year) Paddy Keogh’s site is excellent in terms of functionality and its wine-list. Check out Sticks Chardonnay, Viognier Yarra Valley 2006, €12.90 or rich ripe spicy Chateau Haut Rian Cuvée Prestige Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux 2005, €13.70.

www.simplywines.ie

Ian Dornan’s smashing list is very well worth returning to for its frequently top-class wines – backed up by a money-back guarantee.

++++

www.bubblebrothers.com

Began exclusively with Champagne, hence the name, but now sells a wide range of classic wines. Also has a drive-in warehouse at Marina Commercial Park, Cork as well as its original store in the English Market in the city centre.

www.karwigwines.ie

Award-winning wine list also sold from their store at Carrigaline, Co Cork. Smashing affordable wines from all over but I am particuarly fond of several of Joe’s wines from Italy, Germany and Portugal.

www.lecaveau.ie

Extensive list also available at its store in Kilkenny.

www.marypawlewines.com

Ireland’s longest-established importer of organic wines. I’m agnostic on the whole organic thing but believe that winegrowers and winemakers even aiming for organic certification  by definition lavish TLC on their plants which is where it all begins. Mary makes no specific health or even quality claims for wines made from organically-grown grapes – but rightly emphasises that she’s looking for good, carefully-made wine and there are several winners in her list.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

www.mccabeswines.ie

Excellent online presence of the shops in Blackrock and Foxrock.

www.mitchellandson.com

One of Ireland’s most informative and interesting sites and a premium range of wines from the 200-year-old upmarket Dublin wine merchant.

www.onthegrapevine.ie

Long list touching the most important bases with some brilliant minority interest specials.

Bordeaux, try rich ripe Chateau Rauzan-Despagne Bordeaux Reserve 2006, €15.50.

www.FromVineyardsDirect.ie

The newish Irish outpost of a British online store. Highlights include a cracking value expressive plump tropical chardonnay from Burgundy, Saint-Véran Merloix Bourgogne Blanc 2007, €12.45, and crisp white Rocca di Tufo Orvieto Classico 2007, €11.45.

www.superquinn.ie

Extensive range. Delivers only in the Dublin area.

www.terroirs.ie

Spin-off from the eponymous gourmet shop in Donnybrook, Dublin.

the wine store

www.thewinestore.ie

The retail wing of importer Tyrrell & Co is a multiple award-winning site focusing on wines from France, Spain and Italy and, in particular, the Rhône valley.

Finally, it’d be pretty understandable if you skipped the long footnote that I opened with. But it is worth thinking about if you get a chance. Information belongs to all of us, rather than being in the gift of some presumed elite. As Tim Berners-Lee tweeted during the recent inspirational Olympics opening ceremony, ‘this is for everyone’.  ♦

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

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Reeling in the years 2012

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

IF you haven’t already seen it, I’d recommend you download and read The misuse of alcohol and other drugs, a report released this week by the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children.

As the name suggests, it has a wide focus. Among its recommendations are stricter controls on prescription drugs, and funding for drug and alcohol rehabilitation schemes. But as you’d expect from a wine blogger, my main focus is on the parts of the report dealing with alcohol.

Alcohol consumption in Ireland has gone up by 231% since 1960. Source: http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx

Some of the recommendations have hit the headlines but it’s really worth reading the full report as it delivers a more rounded sense of the submissions the committee heard, lays out some key evidence, provides useful graphics which can help our understanding of the issues, and contains comprehensive references/links to further relevant stats, audio etc.

Retailers

One of the most controversial recommendations (11) suggests the government should consider an “outright ban on the sale of alcohol in certain outlets”.

But the more specific proposal in this regard is (10) for legislation to “ban the presentation and sale of alcoholic products alongside groceries, confectionary and fuel”.

This is the ‘garages-and-supermarkets’ bit you may have heard about in the news.

While on the face of it, this may look like an enormously radical change, it’s little more than a reversion to the situation that prevailed a few decades ago. The recommendation doesn’t suggest firms operating supermarkets shouldn’t run off-licences, and in practical terms it could mean little more than alcohol being hived off into an area separate from the groceries in supermarkets. This is pretty reasonable really, giving alcohol its proper place as a speciality rather than normalised as a shopping trolley staple.

However I think the 12th recommendation — “that the Government prohibit the practice of retail deliveries of alcoholic products directly to consumers’ homes” — may be a mistake. I believe it’s inspired at least in part by the shocking images from a sting operation in August 2010 on RTÉ’s Prime Time.

That film showed how four off-licences and two supermarkets had sent round alcohol to people who certainly looked like under-18s without checking for identification. The practice is also being targeted by Garda undercover sting operations.

However it’s important to distinguish between such a dial-up booze taxi and the activities of online stores occasionally mentioned in this column which take orders by credit or debit card and deliver wine and beer days later. I see little connection between the online wine stores mentioned on this blog and the booze taxi scandal. Is this because those online wine shops appeal to middle-class folk like me? Captured by the posh? Moi? Don’t think so. No, really. No, it’s because factors including price and the time lag between order and delivery are likely to make them far less appealing to underage drinkers. I’m not convinced anything would be achieved by banning them that wouldn’t be done better by ensuring they’re regulated.

A majority of the committee commended the government’s plan to indroduce minimum pricing, with a minority proposing tax increases, the proceeds to be ring-fenced for alcohol addiction services. The committee also backed a recommendation by the chairman Jerry Buttimer TD to end VAT refunds on below-cost sales. It came as a surprise to many including me that the state was, I presume unintentionally, subsidising some retailers’ sales.

The Nanny State

Inevitably, some of the committee’s recommendations, and the outlook expressed here, will be ridiculed as advocating ‘the nanny state’: folks being coddled and controlled by big brother. Well fine. Let’s look at the world from that perspective…

The Nanny Sector

Instead of the nanny state we have the nanny sector. The retail and drinks lobbies have persuaded the state to privatise much of its policy on how alcohol is advertised and sold, along with winning concessions on matters such as store size and opening hours. And then there’s the advertising and sponsorship. The ‘nannying’ we get from state bodies such as safefood.ie shrinks to infinitesimal dimensions when compared with the wall of communication funded by the powerful, largely self-regulated, alcohol industry. It’s been building its brands by advertising to impressionable young people. For many children and teens, some of the most exciting, engaging experiences are coming to them with alcohol stapled on.  The afternoon movies over Christmas on UTV were sponsored by an alcoholic cider. Matches at the most recent soccer World Cup were bookended by comedy sketches advertising a beer. The very name of Europe’s premier rugby competition is a brand of beer.

Here’s the committee’s recommendation (4)

that the Government explore the option of a ban on all retail advertising relating to the discounting of alcoholic products, a ban on the advertisement of alcoholic products on television before 9PM, and any advertisement of alcohol products on social networking websites (these bans to be given legislative standing).

In what way is this nannying? What will be missing from your life if you see fewer advertisements for drink?

If such advertising weren’t so powerful, they wouldn’t be spending so much money on it. Young people also can’t help but notice the ubiquitous availability of alcohol as part of the weekly shop — which helps normalise drink as a somehow inevitable part of grown-up life.

What happens next?

The report is now being considered by junior Health Minister Roisin Shortall. But she doesn’t get to sit on the couch and just read the report. Not by a long chalk. Don’t forget that various interested parties will be lobbying hard right now, now that change is in the air. The obvious lobbying battle line (alcohol-industry-versus-regulation) is likely to be blurred, and the hardest skirmishes may well be fought by the various sectors of that industry trying to ensure they don’t lose advantage to the others. From their persepective, it’s all about access to markets. The one justification you won’t hear for such opposition is ‘because we profit from it’.

If I knew how, I’d add a countdown clock to this blog. It’d be interesting to see, starting from the publicaton date of the committee’s report, how many days til we read press reports about the disastrous impact alcohol regulation would have on employment.

If I do get round to it, my countdown clock will be accompanied by a wry visual metaphor– a picture of a telegraph operator protesting against the advent of fax, email, SMS and social media and their effect on jobs in that now obsolete medium. 

Here’s an idea: Public policy in areas fundamental to our wellbeing such as health, education, crime, justice and welfare – should never depend how many jobs are in it.

To anyone workng in the alcohol or retail fields who feels I am being glib about the prospects for your business or your job, please be assured that is not the case. Take it from someone working in the print media: things change. It may even be for the better. And anyway, the liberalised regime of retailing and promoting alcohol in this country right now is an recent invention. I don’t recall anyone in the 1990s protesting that their sons or daughters (perhaps you) couldn’t get a job in the alcohol industry just because the local garage wasn’t allowed stock it, or your local sports club wasn’t allowed promote it. One day soon we will regard the ubiquitous alcohol policy as a flash in the pan – as brief and unwise as prohibition.  

Read the industry submissions included in the report and you’ll get a sense of the lobbying. For instance, the National Off-Licence Association is promoting measures which will make it more difficult for supermarkets to mop up market share. The supermarkets in turn — who need no lessons in lobbying from anyone — will be fighting to water down any proposals which impact on their business. I presume  other interest groups such as online wine traders are getting together right now to contact the minister. And on it goes. And it’s in that melee that policy will be formed.

Reeling In The Years

I’m hardly alone in suffering occasional pangs of embarrassment-by-proxy while watching Reeling In The Years on TV. You get that sharp pain when you spot among the video clips from yesteryear the often bizarre clothing, regrettable haircuts, ashtrays in the maternity wards, and members of our ruling class in mullets and kipper ties talking up the property bubble. The blithe reassurances that, yes, it was a good idea to hand our power to churches and companies and forego democratic oversight and regulation of them. And there’s us voting for them. What the hell were we thinking?

Well here’s a handy hint. If you’re wondering about the wisdom of anything from a political policy to a haircut — now, today — just cast your mind forward and imagine how it would look featured ten or twenty years hence on Reeling In The Years 2012.

With regard to alcohol, I figure there’s a good chance we’ll be pretty embarrassed. The way we drink, and especially the way we allow the industry to behave in 2012, will look wildly inappropriate when we look back at it a decade hence. With the lucidity of hindsight, we’ll look back in wonder at the way we handed over power to a small few stakeholders in the alcohol and retail industries, and it’ll all look utterly mad. Here’s a snippet of what we’re likely to say…

“Self-regulation? Given the lessons we’d already learnt from what that kind of power did to the financial industry? What the hell were we thinking?”

We ought to commend this Oireachteas committee, and any governement with the courage to drive on with the broad thrust of its report. As I mentioned above, there will be powerful groups who make their money from alcohol lobbying the minister. So who’s missing from her table? Most of us, really — disenfranchised by our silence, left reading page after page of court reports about alcohol-related violence and accidents. Because right now. whether we like it or not, that’s what’s ‘normal’.

The advertising, availability and display of alcohol aren’t the only factors contributing to the abuse of alcohol. But they are among the few in our direct political control. That’s our power which, for a generaton, we’ve ceded to private firms for profit. If you welcome the partial rolling back of ubiquitous alcohol and alcohol advertising, and taking power back from sectoral interests, you might consider contacting your TD or the minister to give them your backing.  ♦

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

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Myth and magic

Note: I no longer contribute drinks columns to the Irish Examiner. See here for details.

EXCITING news from the world of science. Beer has been found to contain a substance that makes a proven contribution to health. Scientific studies have shown that dihydrogen monoxide or DHMO delivers important health benefits, delaying death for decades. And laboratory tests on beer have shown that it contains a significant proportion of the miracle compound. Moreover, researchers warn that a diet lacking in DHMO could cause developmental issues and even death for some children as it plays a vital role in the metabolism. But on the upside, as well as promoting health, the superfood ingredient may also contribute to your kids’ intelligence: Albert Einstein was known to have included it in his diet…

OK, stop. There isn’t one untrue statement in the preceding few sentences but it’s utterly misleading. yes, DHMO is essential for life and yes, it’s found in beer. But it’s also found in parsnips, apples, your little finger and, in great quantities, gushing out of your kitchen taps. Because it is just another name for plain ol’ H2O – water.

Misleading with selected facts is easily done: A few carefully-chosen points are presented (and, crucially, information which might provide contradiction or even context is omitted) in a way to plant an utterly false suggestion in the reader’s mind. You could just as easily turn the miracle ingredient into a nightmare… Experts warn that DHMO, whether in its liquid, solid or gaseous state, can contribute to accidents and injuries and even kill… Yes, people do drown, slip on ice, and get burnt by handling boiling kettles. 

Like a car crash, negative scare stories attract attention, and keep readers exercised and clicking on the pages generated by some parts of the media, old and new alike, which appear to value popularity over proper, contextualised truth. Similarly, breathless upbeat stories like our  ‘miracle’ product are attractive to many readers. Both types of fact-filled misleading nonsense are sometimes used by less scrupulous businesses promoting some product or other. Boo! story – our product has the solution. Yay! story – our product is packed with the miracle ingredient.

Brief report on The Drinks Business website

In my column in this morning’s Irish Examiner I refer to a brief piece in a drinks industry news website which quotes Professor Roger Corder. The piece, in The Drinks Business, is nonsense. Like my spoof paragraph in italics above, it appears to contain no untruths that I’m aware of. But the parade of selective partial truths is more thoroughly misleading than a pack of lies. Let’s go take a look at it.

Professor Roger Corder, author of The Wine Diet and an expert on dietary polyphenols, has spoken out against supermarket red wines dubbing them “cheap imposters” and “little more than white wines pretending to be red.”

A professor, author and expert (ooh there’s an appeal to authority) is indicting those rascally retailers, the supermarkets, for suckering us into buying cheap imposters. That’s the impression being delivered here.

Let’s hold off judgement and read on till he presents his evidence. Mind you, I must point out the thing about “white wine masquerading as red” is questionable even without evidence. There is a glut of wine, red and white, on world wholesale markets at most price points. Surely the purpose of ‘passing off’ is defeated if the alleged fraudster is making no extra benefit from his fraud. Pretending that white wines are actually red would be like melting down €1 coins to forge €1 coins. Eh? Let’s read on…

“A large percentage of supermarket red wines have just enough contact with grapes to extract colour from the skins and contain virtually no grape pip polyphenols,” Corder said.

*BRRRNNNGGG!!!!* Sorry, that was the guff alarm going off. Permitting grape juice to remain in contact with the grape skins (and pulp, and possibly a few unlucky but merry wasps who followed the truck to the winery) is precisely what happens when making red wine. That skin contact is necessary, and it is sufficient. It’s the way red wines have been made, are being made, and will be made. Saying this process is “just enough” is a bit like saying that Rory McIlroy played “just enough” golf to win the US Open. Pips? You want pips? Here you go. This side-eye ‘just enough’ bollocks from Corder adds little to the reader’s store of knowledge but much to inculcate a vague dissatisfaction with some (as yet unidentified) wines sold by (as yet unidentified) stores.

“Polyphenols are the source of a wine’s colour, flavour and character, yet many supermarket red wines are low in polyphenols, which compromises the taste and quality of the wine,” Corder added.

This is a particularly vicious type of nonsense. First, here comes the science bit: As the article sort-of points out elsewhere, the levels of polyphenols, colour, alcohol, etc do indeed vary from wine to wine. This phenomenon of variability is known as the “range” of “wine styles”. No more, no less. A wine that has more or less of any of these constituents isn’t necessarily better, and isn’t necessarily worse by any criterion. It depends. So much for the insinuation.

But anyway, polyphenols are only one source of ‘a wine’s colour, flavour and character’. Let’s go back and look at Corder’s broad point which seems to suggest polyphenols are where it’s at, and that red wines with lower levels of same are somehow lacking.

Here are some facts. Wines made from red grapes range from white through the palest rosé to dense, dark purply black. Yes, the fact that white wines can be made from red grapes may come as a surprise, but everyone knows the most famous example – Champagne. The traditional sparkler can be made with any combination of three grapes – chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. The latter two are red and, while they are obviously used in making rosé Champagne, those red grapes also feature in ‘white’ Champagnes. To complete the picture, a sparkler made only with white grapes is known as blanc de blancs; while a white one made only with red grapes is a blanc de noirs. And pink-hued sparkers made with red grapes and/or white are rosé, rosato or rosado. This is a digression. But it may serve as a useful bit of perspective.

Each and every wine style has something to recommend it. Being a source of polyphenols ain’t one of them. Why? Because polyphenols are everywhere, that’s why. We’re practically falling over them. Nature is knee-deep in em, as they crop up in practically every type of plant. So if you feel an urgent need to embiggen the quantity of polyphenols in your diet, just tuck into some tasty fruit and veg. Especially fresh or raw. Here, have a tomato. Peel an orange. Put a lettuce leaf into that breakfast roll. Have a cup of tea even.

So what the hell is Corder whingeing about?

Why would the learned professor keep banging on about a common-as-muck component of our diet which he (unsupported by even one proper scientific finding) claims is good for our health and bemoan what he claims is its scarcity in certain products (which he hasn’t disclosed) sold by certain retailers (which he hasn’t disclosed)?

While scratching your head over the enigma of Professor Corder, here are some thoughts. I think wine is fun, whether it’s red, white or rosé. A decent bottle in good company can elevate a dinner into a feast, can make you feel good. All great fun once it’s in reasonable proportion, once alcohol doesn’t adversely affect you. But even as a major fan of wine, I have to say it has a miniscule positive effect on our lives compared to the powerful impact on your longevity delivered by the real agenda-toppers such as having a good balanced diet, enjoying life, having a half-decent mission in your life, exercising mind and body a bit, having reasonably fulfilling relationships, and having a sense of perspective…

Speaking of perspective, where’s Prof Corder? Look back at that third paragraph again and ask why do his sciency pronouncements — Specific. Hard-edged. Clear. Polyphenols! Pow! Analysis! Biff! — just… collapse… into detumescent vagueness…

How many is this “many” supermarkets you speak of Professor? Three? 2,476? And then there’s the wines he’s trying to warn us about. Name one. Go on. Check your wallet — the name of this appalling imposter is probably printed on your till receipt and we’d like to know. After all you’ve been ‘dissecting’ these wines in the lab, haven’t you? Where’s the paperwork? The rather large bank of data listing all the components of all the wines you’ve tested? Oh and while you’re at it, name just one of the supermarkets in question. So we’ll know which ones to avoid. Let’s see if the article divulges. We’ll read on…

In March, Corder teamed up with Santiago Navarro, head of UK online wine merchant Vinopic, which assesses a wine’s drinking pleasure, richness in grape polyphenols, value for money and customer popularity, giving each wine a score out of 100.

Oh…. So the brave sciencey stand Prof Corder has been taking on behalf of consumers… It turns out that he’s…. Vinopic is… how do I put this… another wine retailer?

I haven’t forgotten his 100% failure to provide even one item of evidence for his assertions in this article so far. But for the moment let’s put that question on hold. And let’s take a look at the retailer he’s involved with.

Vinopic (“buy better wine online” is the cheering, albeit hardly objective, endorsement on the link when I Google it) looks for all the world like any other online wine shop. Nothing wrong with that. A blameless occupation. Curiously, the site boasts not one but two rating systems — an “intrinsic quotient” awarded by the professor to reds which purports to measure “the skill of the winemaker and how well-made the wine is” and then there’s an overall score. I could find no explanation of how points were awarded to the wines which is again oddly vague: We’re asked to believe that this isn’t just a regular wine reviewer’s scoring system, but something sciencey, yet we’re kept in the dark about criteria and even the units of measurement.

To illustrate the intrinsic quotient, the site provides this graphic.

The “Intrinsic Quotient” scale on the vinopic site.

Ooooh. Interesting. Average “supermarket wines” are way over on the left. Tut tut. Bit low on the Intrinsic Quotient so they are. But great news for Vinopic! Their wines have scored up to 150 wotsits. So unlike any presentation of data you might expect from — oh, say a scientist — this one doesn’t actually disclose anything. Not the items being compared, nor the criteria for the comparison nor even the unit of measurement (I’ve decided to call them wotsits).

Sure we could all do that. I could put up a chart measuring the, eh, Intrinsic Quality of blogs. Few wotsits bad (frowny face), many wotsits good (smiley face). And on my chart, right there on the right hand side would be my brilliant blog! 150 wotsits! And on the ‘bad’ left hand side would be “A Terrible Average Low-Wotsit Blog”. No URL or link, mind you as the ‘bad’ blog may not even exist.

Corder’s Vinopic chart says supermarkets boo. Vinopic yay.

So you’d expect the site is selling truly extraordinary wines with magickal properties. Having trawled through some of the wines on offer, I recognise quite a few as wines I’ve tasted, and some I’ve recommended here or in the Irish Examiner.

Here’s one of them, as it appears on the Vinopic website.

Ringbolt Cabernet Sauvignon £64.99 for six from Vinopic

Yep that’s it. Ringbolt Cabernet Sauvignon from Western Australia. 2008.

I must say I like it a lot, and I recall recommending it, and previous vintages too. But Vinopic wasn’t on my radar until last week. So how the hell did I manage to secure a precious bottle of this life-giving elixir that’s so… polyphenolish? Oh hang on, here it is…

Ringbolt Cabernet Sauvignon £55.80 for six at Tesco

Yes, another retailer [I’ve used their UK site so the prices are comparable] selling the same wine, same region, same winemaker, same vintage, same polyphenols. Tesco. A supermarket.

 

Question: What’s the difference between supermarket wine and Prof Corder’s magically healthy wine?
Answer: About £1.53 per bottle.

 

I don’t speak for any retailer, let alone any supermarket. Far from it. I think far too much power in the retail food trade is concentrated in too few hands. I regret the clout that supermarkets wield, and also think the relaxing of regulations on aspects such as opening hours, Sunday trading and store size may have been harmful to communities around Ireland…

But none of that makes it all right for anyone – in this case a competitor – to take lazy swipes at a big, easy target. Worse, preying on common misconceptions of how science actually works. And worst of all, in my view, nothing justifies stoking up misplaced doubt and unjustified fear in the minds of us, the public.

Despite the inital appearance to the contrary, the short article in The Drinks Business has nothing to do with your health, nor with the quality of wine you’re drinking. There is no reason to believe that Prof Corder has any more interest in your life and your wellbeing than the employees of those other retailers he’s giving out about. In fact, he has far more in common with them than sets them apart. They both want your money. The only major difference, as far as I can tell, is that supermarkets haven’t been spreading mendacious nonsense warning customers off from shopping in independent online wine stores. I shop in both, find excellent quality and value in both, and I know of no wine lover who doesn’t.

 

If you’re interested in finding out more, I suggest you start with Dr Ben Goldacre the greatest debunker of nonsense science reporting in the media – his site includes a number of brilliant bits of audio which I think are particularly helpful for crystallising the issues. And here is my guide to wine myths, for the most part just common errors rather than deliberately misleading guff. But among them is a look at those utterly misleading pseudoscience stories about wine you’ll occasionally see in the media.

 

Edit: Many thanks to Tom Way for the splendid spoofery he’s got going on over at the DHMO website. I borrowed from shamelessly plundered the DHMO idea from his hilariously panic-inducing posts for my opening paragraph above. You may want to start with this 2004 article in the Guardian which recounts a real-life panic in a Californian city caused by someone taking the DHMO spoof as real. Is it okay to laugh at them? Briefly perhaps. And then maybe resolve to be less credulous ourselves. ♦

Never mind the wine, taste the glasses

Riedel ‘Flow’ pinot noir glass.

♦ THERE’S every chance that one of these days I’ll be found running amok in a kitchenware shop waving a hurley over my head.

Before they manage to get the net over me and bundle me into the van, I hope to have taken down entire displays of the wine world’s worst aberration — pointlessly overdesigned glasses that are ruining people’s experience of wine.  My first and most obvious target will of course be the coloured glasses…

“Glassware? Certainly.  Sir will be pouring wine, one of the most beautiful-looking items that will ever grace his dinner table. And so, sir is naturally compelled to disguise it behind gaudy coloured glass….”

Blue glass. Red glass. Patterns, swirls and stripes. And, most baffling of all, black glass.  It’s all nonsense. Wine comes in a gorgeous spectrum of colour from the faintest white gold of a light sauvignon blanc or vinho verde through to the opaque purple black of a big shiraz.  The translucent purple blue  of a Beaujolais; every hue of pink from a wan grey pinot gris to brazen lipstick;  port and viscous PX sherry the colour of Cuprinol. Crystal-clear glass with no patterns, etching or frosting is what you want to let those gorgeous colours shine.

Colour is of course only one dimension, and far worse crimes against your senses are being committed when you mess around with the ‘classic’ wine glass shape which plays a crucial role in coaxing out and framing the scent of a good wine.

Riedel “flow” Cabernet Sauvignon

In the Irish Examiner today I’m looking at glassware, and pictured here are the three red-wine glasses in one of the ranges I mention in that column — the Riedel ‘Flow’ range.  I bought them last week in my local TK Maxx at a very reasonable €14.99 a pair. I’ve checked with their PR people and the glasses are available nationwide in three shapes — cabernet, syrah and pinot noir. There are also variants optimised for white wines in the range but I wouldn’t bother fussing over too many specific glasses. The ones I got are not perfect (I don’t like the thick stems) but they are fine examples of wine glasses that work.

The classic wine glass proportions (generous in size, wide around the middle and tapering in towards the top) has evolved for good reasons. They present a large surface area of the liquid, allowing the interplay of air and the rapidly-evolving wine. But at the same time the tapered shape corrals and contains the winey air that contributes so much to the taste experience. (In brief – much of what we regard as taste is in fact smell: even when we aren’t actively sniffing, a lot of the action is happening in the nose – as sensors there capture the more volatile molecules carried in air).

Contrast the generous classic shape with the tiny tulip-shaped glasses pubs used to use. Filled to the brim (like beer glasses, their volume exactly equalled the standard measure) they killed stone dead the scent and therefore the flavour of wine — at least until you were three-quarters of the way down the glass.

Riedel ‘Flow’ range syrah glass

There’s one further criterion I’d suggest when you’re buying wine glasses – don’t get anything so pricey that you’re afraid to use them. The optimum glasses that present your wine at its very best are cheaper than many of the fancy-pants colourdey cocktail-bar models.

You can buy upmarket wine glasses that work perfectly with wine but cost around €90 a pair. Um, thanks but no.

You may imagine this is just me being mean, but I have road-tested the likes of those upmarket glasses. Plus, sceptical about my own responses to them, I have subjected posh glasses to the most sincere evaluation, informal blind taste tests. At various dinners plus one fundraising event I distributed €45 glasses unannounced among the €5 ones, and no-one detected any difference. The Riedel Flow above and the M&S Windsor model below are engineered to very similar standards but at such a price that you don’t mind too much if you drop one. Plus more money ends up in your pocket. Result.

Then there’s classic cut crystal glasses. They look gorgeous on the shelf but I’ve never seen one that works properly as a wine glass. Whiskey glasses? Sure. But the clunky, heavy and thick-rimmed cut crystal is inimical to glass of wine. Companies such as Waterford have remedied this in recent years, releasing wine glasses which emulate the upper tiers of Riedel and Schott. And just like them… They. Are. Too. Dear.

M&S Windsor Red Wine glasses

I occasionally trawl through kitchen shops to keep up to date with the best glassware, and that’s how I encountered those good value glasses at TK Maxx. But the top-level Windsor range at Marks & Spencer’s remains the outstanding wine glass.

If I were you, I’d walk swiftly past the coloured glasses that M&S stock, and I’d also ignore their entry-level wine glasses which are, at best, okay. Because for the sake of a couple of bucks more, the Windsor Red Wine Glasses (€20 for four) are the business. They’re also a brilliant present. Twenty smackers! Sure that’s nothing for a thing that looks so well. If I were kitting out a wine-lover’s kitchen from scratch, I’d get a supply of them, along with the Windsor Champagne flutes (€16 for four). Okay, I’ll put down the hurley and come quietly.  ♦

Liquid engineering

THE only thing that should really matter to wine fans is the quality and value of the wine in the glass. But I’m swerving a little off-piste in my column this week to look at one aspect of the bigger picture — closure (it’s in today’s snazzy new-look Irish Examiner Weekend or click here to see it online). Specifically, I’m looking at the Zork which joins the screwcap and the plastic corq as the latest alternative closure to the traditional cork.

Zork diagram

The inspiration for this focus is the first wine bottled under Zork that’s widely available in Ireland. Namely, Ocean’s Edge Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc (at an introductory price of €9.99  at Tesco). It’s a cracking party fizz, a simple, light bubbly with saucy lemony  acidity. That price is remarkably low, given the €4+ excise duty on  all bubbly. However it’s important to point out that Ocean’s Edge isn’t like the sparkling  wines that I’d generally recommend here: Instead of the classic secondary bottle fermentation used in Cavas and Champagnes and adopted more recently by serious winemakers worldwide, this one is simply carbonated. Like running your vin blanc through the SodaStream.

I have mixed feelings about the Zork establishing its bridgehead in Ireland on this particular wine, because I think it may inadvertently cause drinkers to associate that closure with mere cheapness. Because in fact the Zork may spell a new beginning. For the first time, here’s a reliable synthetic closure that can be used for high-pressure sparkling wines. (Unlike some frizzantes and proseccos which can be bottled under regular stoppers, the dissolved CO2 in an unopened bottle of ‘proper’ bubbly amounts to several atmospheres of pressure, hence the cork and wire cage assembly we’re used to, and it’s  why you won’t see screwcaps  on bubbly).
The Zork is quite an ingenious little device, and is the only wine stopper I’ve encountered that seals the bottle both inside and outside the neck. (In the argot of fitters and engineers, these fittings are ‘male’ and ‘female’ respectively, making the Zork the first hermaphrodite wine stopper).

As Jennifer Aniston might say, here comes the science bit. You start by tearing off the tamper-proof spiral strip. Below that lies the two-part business end of the Zork: the visible part which covers the top of the neck, and a pop-up button in the centre which seals the bottle from the inside. It reminds me of the connector fittings you’ll find on garden hose systems such as the Hozelock.
The Zork is suitable for still wines of course, and the stellar d’Arenberg is among the wineries to try it out on theirs. But it’s got two unique advantages when it comes to sparkling wines. First, unlike any synthetic closure, it can cope with the immense pressures in a sparkling  wine. And better again, you can reseal the bottle at the pop of a button, and the fizz will be sustained for when you return to the bottle for further study on the morrow — that’s something you can’t do with any other closure, traditional or synthetic. ♦

Stop the press!

WOAH! Just seen the details of a short snappy sale on at Curious Wines online or at their store near Smyths Toys at the Kinsale Road Roundabout* in Cork. I’d stongly suggest you check it out.

The sale, offering 30% off 30 wines for 30 hours (ie until 6pm Tomorrow, Saturday) includes a number of wines I’ve happily recommended at their normal price. Taking a third off wine that is already good quality and great value is my kind of sale.

Here’s a swift gallop through the ones I have suggested recently.

Gregorina Sangiovese Superiore 2008 Emilia-Romagna (€11.99 €8.99).

Star anise… celery… You’d swear bitterness was a pejorative or guilty secret but it’s a vital component of delicious flavours in all good  food and drink. It’s here playing a mouth-wateringly fragrant foil centre-stage in a beautifully-balanced herb-inflected sangiovese.

Borgo Magredo Prosecco Extra Dry NV (€16.99 €9.59).

One way the Champagne people have gotten away with their nonsense for a century is its customers have learned to expect some sort consistency. The variability of flavour and fun you might find in “Prosecco” down the years has done the reputation of those Italian sparklers no such favours – but happily this is changing rapidly.  This one is gorgeous, fresh and fruity.

Woodstock Shiraz Cabernet McLaren Vale 2006 (€14.99 €11.99)

Rich, swoony shiraz with a fabulous heady scent.

Cuvee Jean-Paul Sec Cotes de Gascogne (€8 €6.39)

It’s all very well to prattle on about overpriced wine (and I do). But on the other side of the coin is a slew of undervalued, overlooked wine styles, chief among them Portuguese vinho verde and this style from south west France – a fresh, delicious colombard ugni blanc blend. You don’t have to be recessionista to enjoy this wine. It rocks regardless of price, and I’d have been just as happy to recommend it during the so-called boom.

Chateau Bauduc Clos Blanc Sec 2007 (€16.99 €11.99)

White wine fashions come and go more rapidly than the tide. But really the interplay between firm zesty sauvignon and plush aromatic semillon in a well-made Bordeaux blanc is the business with shellfish. And I particularly love the assertive lemon and lime edge on this one.

* You may have heard of the traffic chaos this morning as some key roads around Cork including  the Kinsale Road / Ring Road interchange suddenly iced up.  Well getting your hands on these bargains won’t be an issue as you can pay for it now online and pick it up when the thaw comes.

The price of wine

HERE’S a half hour of audio I’d suggest to anyone interested in wine – a recent episode of The Food Programme that I heard via the BBC iPlayer (Sundays at 12.30pm; repeated on Mondays at 8pm;  available indefinitely on iPlayer).

Sheila Dillon presents The Food Programme on BBC Radio4 (c) BBC

Presented by Sheila Dillon, the Food Programme is usually devoted to just one topic. It might be a particular food tradition or trend — encompassing its history, a shopper’s guide, and recipes — but more often it’ll be all about the bigger picture,  the economic, political and health aspects of food and drink.

The show I just heard is about off-licences — the drinks sellers trading in the margin left behind by the supermarkets which sell a whopping 70% of alcohol in the UK market. (Yes, the business cost structures in Ireland and Britain are very different, as are the tax regimes, so the markets are quite different.  But they’re sufficiently similar to make the show essential listening over here too).

At one point in the broadcast, reporter Dan Saladino talked to an industry insider, Tesco’s beer, wine and spirits director, Dan Jago. When asked whether heavy discounting of wines by supermarkets was “depriving the wine industry of much-needed investment,” Jago made two interesting points.

“When you have an extraordinarily large oversupply of wine you end up with a supply-and-demand equation that would be the same as any industry,” he said.  “When we [Tesco] are offered vast quantities of wine at very  low prices, one of the things we’d want to do is pass those savings on to our customers…”

In this, Jago is confirming something the industry knows well, but which many wine consumers are still unaware of — or in some cases possibly don’t want to believe — namely, the tectonic shift in the way wine is made and how it’s priced; and also that there is a sustained surplus on world markets.

The wine pyramid

You could picture the world’s wines as being stacked up in a pyramid: At the top, tiny quantities of premium wine at frankly unconscionable prices; in the middle and at the bottom, an enormous ocean of perfectly pleasant wine at everyday prices. Well, in recent years that pyramid has both grown in size, and flattened out considerably.

There will always be a specialist market for expensive wines: the rich we will always have with us. As I’ve pointed out in my Examiner column before, the market for high-end wines costing hundreds or thousands per bottle – often sold en primeur – can only be understood if you perceive it as a millionaires’ auction.

But the really interesting stuff is happening at the middle and bottom of that pyramid.  In general, the  quality of regular, everyday wine has shot up, and the quantity of it has exploded in the last twenty years or so. You don’t need an economics degree to work out that prices ought to be tumbling across the board.

Which brings us to the second interesting point made, perhaps inadvertently, by Dan Jago, when he addressed the discounting issue  by minimising the effect of it:

“But it’s a mix,” he said. “Of the 850 wines in this store, you’ll probably find no more than 70 or 80 bottles on promotion at any one time. So it’s less than 10% of the range being promoted.”

That’s exactly the point I would quibble with. Instead of transparently, consistently lower prices, we are bedazzled by a roller-coaster of special offers and bogof (buy one get one free) deals.  I’m not suggesting traditional deals such as case discounts or bin-end sales are in some way problematic for the consumer. But I do believe consumers would be better served by straightforward transparent reduction across the board rather than the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t special offers, many of which aren’t that special at all. ♦

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