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Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Tesco's SMS Sommelier

An on-demand sommelier service from Tesco

Fronted by Helen McGinn, Tesco have launched an SMS-based sommelier service - I asked a bunch of wine people what they thought of the idea and you can see the responses in this twitter thread:

Tom Lewis on Twitter: "Any thoughts on this one: Wine matcher: @winematcher ? Sommelier: @donalde ? Techie: @thirstforwine ? E-commerce: @oldparn ? Marketers: @robertjoseph @mme_hammond ? Journo: @FelicityCarter ?" / Twitter

The press release reads:

Tesco is to give wine lovers access to tailored tips from top sommeliers with on-demand SMS recommendation service

Running from 18 March–16 April, the Tesco Sommelier Messaging Service will deliver bespoke bottle recommendations from leading restaurant sommeliers by text, to help the nation elevate their evenings in with exceptional wines and perfect pairings from Tesco.

From bold and spicy to crisp and aromatic, deliciously dry to sumptuously sweet – you’ll find a wine for every palate, food, mood and occasion at Tesco. With so many choices, it can be hard to decide between the wide range of styles, grapes and regions available, but help is at hand with the launch of the Tesco Sommelier Messaging Service (SMS).

Running from 12pm-7pm daily, from 18 March – 16 April 2021, the on-demand text service will give people access to personal wine recommendations based on their individual tastes, budget and menu.

Following three short initial questions, a Tesco wine recommendation will be delivered in real time to their device from someone on the expert SMS panel, which is headed up by TV presenter and wine expert Helen McGinn, supported by 20 sommeliers and wine waiters from restaurants across the UK.

There is no replacement for the restaurant experience and receiving personal guidance from the in-house sommelier. Until that can be enjoyed again, Tesco SMS will give wine-drinkers access to those experts remotely, to help them make the most of the brilliant bottles in reach – but as of yet, undiscovered – on their weekly shop.

Whether it’s a pasta-friendly red for a favourite quick supper, or something exceptional for a special Easter feast – Tesco SMS will make it easy to choose a winning wine to match.

By using Tesco SMS, people will also be helping to support all those who make our evenings out special, as for every wine recommendation delivered, Tesco will donate £1 to Hospitality Action, the industry’s charity.


To request a wine recommendation, simply text “WINE” to 82228 and follow the steps when prompted. 

A personalised answer will usually be delivered within 30 minutes:

Step 1: Text “WINE” to 82228

Step 2: Answer the questions when prompted, sharing information about your usual wine preferences and what you’re planning to cook/eat

Step 3: Your sommelier will review the information submitted and send back wine recommendations tailored to you.

For more information visit: https://realfood.tesco.com/curatedlist/wine-pairing-for-your-favourite-meals.html


Texts to this service are charged at the Standard Network Message Rate as you have agreed with your network provider, including the single initial text to the non-premium 82228 number

Some network providers charge additional fees to text short codes.

If you would prefer you can also use the service by texting the long form number - simply text WINE to 07984445993

Standard network rate messages apply.

One charge only will be billed per request, this will be at your standard network rate.

Requests to Tesco SMS are answered by real people and as such, responses will be slower at busy times and the service may be subject to limits.

Tesco will donate £1 for every completed SMS delivery (ie. the final text in the sequence), during the operational hours of the service.

You must be aged 18+ to use the service

Monday, 22 March 2021

Finca Traversa Tannat Merlot 2019 - The Co-op

An unusual but well-groomed south American from The Co-op

Have you ever had a Uruguayan wine? Ever had a Tannat?

Chances are the answer to both those questions is "no".

Uruguay is South America's forth largest wine producer, but as far as most wine retailing is concerned, there's pretty much only Chile and Argentina.

As for Tannat, it's at home in south west France, especially in Madiran, but like both Malbec and Carménère, Tannat has moved from obscurity in its native land to a leading role in its adoptive South American home and is now Uruguay's signature red grape.

The grape was first introduced to Uruguay by Basque settlers in the 19th century; as a variety, it has some rustic tendencies that with the right handling and a dash of something in the blend can be softened, rather like a scrub and brush-up for a country squire who has spent a bit too much time with the horses.

Plantings of Tannat are increasing in Uruguay every year; the insider's tip is that some vineyards now distinguish between "old vines" (descendants from the original cuttings) and newer clones. The newer vines produce more powerful wines with higher alcohol levels but have less acidity and fruit complexity, so are often blended.

This wine is produced in the capital Montevideo by three-generation producer Finca Traversa; founded by Carlos Domingo Traversa and his wife Maria Josefa Salort in 1937, proximity to the Atlantic Ocean provides cool breezes and a maritime climate that help to keep alcohol levels lower and develop bright, fruit driven wines with great character and complexity.

Merlot and Tannat may not at first seem like natural bedfellows, but there is a precedent for this sort of blend in Cahors, where a lighter, fresher style of sub-13% alcohol reds includes up to 30% of Merlot (or others) in with Malbec.

The winery uses state of the art technology and pride themselves in the sustainable nature of the winery too - in 2014 they introduced solar panels, bottle weights have been reduced by 25% and they have increased the use of composting to replace inorganic fertilisers.

On the label, the house is a representation of ‘Casa Pueblo’ at Punta Ballena which was built by renowned Uruguayan abstract artist Carlos Páez Vilaró.

Finca Traversa Tannat Merlot - The Co-op (£8) floral, darkly fruited and meaty-gamey; inky and supple with black fruits and peppery spice; harmonious with freshness and very fine, well-integrated tannins.


Drinks nicely on first pouring, becoming more sleek and well-groomed with aeration.

Match with roast red meats or charcuterie.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

Building An Instant Wine Cellar

How lockdown forced me to build an instant cellar of current vintage and mature wines

Non-wine friends who know of my side-hobby occasionally observe: oh, you must have an amazing wine cellar!

The reality is that modern townhouses are not really conducive to storing wine reliably and given that even amateur-league writers get enough invitations, masterclasses and samples to support a mixed diet of interesting wines on a regular basis, there is little need to start a collection at home.

Then, a year ago, lockdown happened; all tastings were completely cancelled and no-one had any samples to send out.

Even worse, there was no reliable prospect of popping across to France for a couple of weeks and returning with a bootful of inexpensive bottles.

I had to start actually buying wine in this country.

This was a new experience, but I took it in my stride.

A year on and I now have a decent instant-cellar, stored under the stairs in boxes and under blankets to keep out heat and light.

With zoom tastings coming on stream to replace in-person events and no actual guests to entertain, these wines may now end up staying there for a while; this will be OK for some, but others are at a peak now and have not got much further to go.

A good wine cellar should have a range of wines at every stage of maturity (ready for early drinking, maturing and at peak) in a range of styles from fizz to dessert via white, rosé and red.

Building an instant wine cellar

The cellar was built up in a somewhat ad hoc fashion; I did not set out from the start to create it as such. Rather, it evolved naturally as I found inexpensive wines I liked on special offer and decided to buy them in quantity.

The cellar is big on European classics, with the occasional curve-ball, and also big on mature wines.

There are probably around 100+ bottles left now and as I am no longer acquiring faster than drinking, there is roughly a year's consumption in there assuming a shared bottle every Friday and Saturday night.

All my purchases have been opportunistic; a tweet here or FB mention there by someone in the trade sees me heading off from my desk during wfh lunchtime to check out whatever is being recommended. Ironically, lockdown and working from home has made it possible to keep an eye on social media and pop out during the day in a way that would not be possible if I were still commuting daily into London.

So thanks to:

- Richard Bampfield

- Tom Cannavan

- Tim Carlisle

- Nayan Gowda

- Charles Metcalfe

- Nick Oakley

for bringing all these to my attention.

Palate preference and recommendations

Everyone has a different set of preferences; by now, I know who in the trade shares my classical, old-school European, cool-climate palate-style and whose recommendations I can expect to like.

If you like Big New World wine with lots of ripe up-front fruit and alcohol, you won't find much of that here, but that's not to say you cannot get reliable recommendations; I just cannot tell you where to find them.

I also tend not to bother with trophy wines - the big names that everyone knows and approves of, which carry a hefty price premium for their quality and lineage; I rather prefer to go off the beaten track and look for the quirky and underpriced.

I also don't particularly do the edgy natural wine thing, orange wines - except this superb one - or hipster pale, Alpine style, delicate reds from obscure grapes.

The Beginnings

In late winter 2020, when we were still commuting and working in offices, the Co-op started marking down some interesting wines and I had done a tour of local branches for half-price English pink fizz, Vouvraymature Mosel Riesling and a few others with a view to laying some down.

Mature Burgundy

I've never been able to get excited about red Burgundy, despite several attempts. It's expensive yet meh, in my book, so discounted mature red Burgundy was a chance to see if I could establish what all the fuss is about.

Cambridge Wine Merchants picked up several pallets of mature red Burgundy destined for the now-closed restaurant trade and I bought around half-a-dozen of various reds at 50% off standard price off-trade price. I liked some better than others and have a few left, but never quite went back for more of the same.

I did, however, buy several bottles of various whites - which I prefer.

Inexpensive Bordeaux - from a Good Year

A Facebook post from Richard Bampfield alerted me to some on-offer red Bordeaux at Lidl. 2016 is the year to lay down and is under £7 a bottle when on promotion, so I bought a mixture of these plus some 2017s for earlier drinking.


My local M&S has been selling off various own-label darker sherries from time to time - always under a fiver, sometimes under £2 for Cream, PX, Amontillado and Oloroso.


Nick Oakley dropped a note onto FB offering some ruby port uncovered during a stock-take at half list price - minimum order of a dozen with courier at cost, so I took one of those and handed a few out to friends and neighbours at Christmas.

Mature Rhône

Mature Rhône is not really a thing as it tends to get consumed when young, but this half-price ex-restaurant stock demanded to be bought by the caseload. So I did.


I don't know Italy as well as I'd like to; Nayan Gowda brought this Dolcetto at Cambridge Wine to my attention and the Bridge Street staff suggested these two Ricossa wines were a bargain worth trying.

Dry Botrytis Semillon

The oldest wine in my newly-established cellar is a 20yo Australian (off)-dry botrytized Semillon. I thought the first case was good value at £10 per bottle. Then I bought a second case further discounted to £6 per bottle.

That's £18's worth of storage costs on a £6 wine - mad.

Whilst I was in there, I also noticed some half-price mature Bordeaux and Rioja which Tom the manager said were good. He seemed like a reliable guy, so I picked up a case of those.

Younger Wines

Lidl has been a great source of easy-drinking well-made younger wines: a case of Pecorino for £3:50 on special offer; Cava contentiously at the same price, a 5yo Rioja for a fiver and a few end-of-range markdowns, including a brace of Beaujolais.

And not forgetting the other German discounter, Aldi. Charles Metcalfe gave a thumbs up to a fruited and easy-drinking Portuguese blend for a fiver, so I cycled to the other side of Cambridge and filled my rucksack with those.

I know people who spend more than that on a wine just to put in the cooking.

Buying interesting, mature wines at below cost-price requires a bit of effort, research and the ability to follow-up on leads quickly. It also helps if you are not too attached to any one wine area or style and are willing to try something new.

There are plenty of wine merchants who will help you build a conventional wine cellar with professional storage that will bring much enjoyment. I happen to prefer the novelty of doing things unconventionally.

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Six Wines from Vineyard Productions - Part One

Three wines from MW-run Vineyard Productions

The Master of Wine qualifications is perhaps one of the world's most rigorous; it is technically and physiologically demanding with very low pass-rates.

As well as assimilating knowledge about how wines is made, the exam also includes three blind tasting papers, each consisting of 12 wines. The challenge is not merely to identify them, but also assess quality levels and commercial potential.

Tasting wines with MWs is rarely less than a fascinating experience given their highly-trained palates and deep understanding of what makes a good wine.

Unsurprisingly, the best, most reliable wine merchants that I have come across always have an MW as a buyer.

Vineyard Productions boasts not one but two two MWs running the company and also includes two winemakers as well as, somewhat unexpectedly, a creative design team.

And yet the logic is inescapable: the business of making and selling wine does not stop once the juice is in the bottle. Given that all bottles of wine look pretty similar on the outside, with relatively minor variations around general themes, the label does all the heavy lifting of communicating the interest of the contents to a would-be buyer.

Anyone looking to make and sell wine therefore needs to give at least as much thought to presentational aspects as to actual contents.

I have written about this in some depth here, On Costly Signalling.

I first came across Vineyard Productions last year after a twitter discussion about a wine label led to them sending me a bottle to try. In short, I liked the wine a lot (it was my unofficial wine of 2020) and felt that the wine kept the promise of the labelling.

On the back of that, they asked me to try a further selection of their wines and I readily agreed.

As can be seen from the photograph, they are all handsomely and distinctively presented while remaining within conventional norms; lovely to look at in an understated way without being too quirky. Smart, sophisticated and classy.

The contents, I found, were no less enjoyable.

If there is a family resemblance, it is that they are well made from good fruit, balanced and complex with no rough edges and good underpinnings. And yet they also wear their sophistication lightly; with plenty of character, they are a joy to drink.

They are all impressive on first pouring, but open up with aeration and can be cellared.

Petite Immortelle Blanc, Côtes Catalanes, 2020 (around £12)

A blend of Vermentino and Grenache Gris, ripe fresh pears with white and yellow stone fruits; broad and savoury with a creamy-nutty richness; very adept and harmonious with excellent textured underpinnings. Very well made.


Drink as an aperitif or match with shellfish, scallops, grilled fish or goat's cheese.

Maia Rosé Côtes de Provence 2019 (around £18.95) 

A blend of mostly Cinsault and Grenache Noir with some Syrah, Vermentino and Mourvèdre; delicate redcurrant and strawberry fruit with orange peel and fresh, linear acidity and minerality; broad and savoury with good underpinnings; very elegant and adept.

Very Good.

Drink as an aperitif or with Provençal style foods rich in flavours like olives, garlic and oily fish like anchovies or grilled sardines. Also serves as an ideal partner to fish, shellfish and white meats.

Immortelle Côtes de Roussillon Villages, 2019 (around £20.95)

A southern blend of 40% Syrah, 20% Carignan 20% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre; dark fruits, cassis, violets, garrigue and clove with minty eucalyptus; warming yet fresh and savoury with toasty spicy oak. salinity and supple, very fine tannins


Match with red meats, such as lamb with rosemary and garlic or venison steak.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Dima's Vodka

A Ukrainian vodka, made by Dima

The Ukrainian word for vodka is horilka; vodka (VOHT-kah) is the Russian diminutive of the word for "water" whereas "horilka" refers to the "burning" process of distillation.

A Russian once told me around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent chaotic hyperinflation: you westerners drink because you like the taste. In Russia, we drink to get drunk and forget how bad our lives are.

My experience of Ukraine has always been less harsh than in Russia; the winters are shorter and the land more fertile. Instead of never-ending taiga and silver birch forests, there are rolling hills and river gorges in the part of western Ukraine that I visit most.

And Kyiv has a Mediterranean vibe with an open, western-leaning, metropolitan feel that is recognisably European where Russia has always felt somewhat alien, more eastern than European.

I first visited the then-Soviet Union in 1991, making new friends in the Urals mere weeks before the failed coup and house arrest of Gorbachev that precipitated the collapse of the country in many ways.

By the time I arrived in Kyiv a year later, that country had been birthed into an independent state whose creation was more the start of its problems than the end of them.

In subsequent years, I went back to Russia only on business; travelling only to Moscow and staying in upmarket hotels, meeting mostly with linguistically-challenged expats living inside the bubble, I saw little of what everyday life was like for the locals.

This was not the real Russia.

By contrast, my experiences of visiting Ukraine were more authentic and perhaps because of that, perhaps because Ukraine is a more of a European nation, I have a greater fondness for the country, even though I speak less of the language.

Ukraine's name means borderland and it is a long-standing mixture of various people's backyards - originally Kievan Rus, the "common ancestor" of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, it has since been fought over and ruled by Poland, Lithuania and Russia, with Turkish, Cossak and Austrian elements.

This makes Ukraine something of a patchwork nation, with different influences in different regions.

My adopted region of Ukraine could be called southern mid-west, close to the Moldovan and Romanian borders and overlooking the Diester river (the back story of my relationship with this area is here). This is a pastoral region of rolling hills and fertile soils with peasanty foods; smallholdings with crops, fruit orchards and livestock plus freshwater fish.

Dima's Vodka

Handsomely presented, with the Ukrainian tryzub (trident), the vodka is made from three different grains, barley, wheat and rye, for a richer and more rounded flavour profile, crystal-clear clarity and an enviable velvety smoothness.

Dima's Vodka (£35, 70cl) yeasty-pastry nose with a touch of nail polish; rich, full and long; viscous and warming with some alcoholic bitterness. Elegant and refined.

Закуски / Zakuski

Zakuski are snacks, small bits of food to consume after your shot of vodka, serving a similar function as pintxos or tapas, but more closely related to the Scandinavian Smörgåsbord or Ottoman meze.

Simple zakuski consist of dark rye bread, pickled cucumbers, tomatoes with dill and ковбаса (cooked sausage).

Warm zakuski include vareniki and pyrohy, akin to dumplings or ravioli - filled pillows of dough with mashed potato, meat or sour cherries (as a dessert) served with butter, fried onions and / or sour cream.

Dima is fond of pickled cucumber and says: we always serve it with a pickle, which is the traditional serving in Ukraine. The pickle is a powerful little thing with an explosive taste profile – its saltiness perfectly complements the sweet smoothness of our vodka.


Toasting is an important part of Ukrainian culture; traditionally, you gather at a table groaning with food and take it in turns to say a toast, followed by a shot of horilka and some strongly-flavoured food.

Dima explains the significance of "budmo" (pronounced Bood – more) on his website:

Budmo is at the heart of all Ukrainian celebrations and encompasses far more than just saying "cheers".

Budmo means ‘let us be’ and is the shortest and the most popular Ukrainian toast. Budmo is said to originate in Cossack times when the Cossacks would gather for a meal and each in turn had a chance to say “Budmo” followed by their wishes for their friends.

Ukrainians are earnest toastmasters, and a party is not a celebration without a series of toasts, which follow a strict hierarchy. 

The first toast is usually proposed by the host, for the meeting (za zustrich).

The second glass is usually raised for friends (za druziv).

The third toast, for women (za zhinok), is given by men while standing.

The last toast of the evening is always “Na Konya!” (Literally translated as “on the horse”).

It is the Ukrainian equivalent of ” one for the road” and comes from the time when the Cossacks would have had a last drink before galloping away. Coupled with the famous pickle, Budmo is a key component of a true Ukrainian vodka experience .

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Barbadillo Atamán Vermouth

A Spanish vermouth from Barbadillo, made with some very old manzanilla sherry

Vermouth has a very long history, but is essentially wine fortified with spirit and infused with herbs and botanicals plus a little sweetness for balance.

The concept of mixing wine with herbs (for medicinal purposes) dates back to ancient China as well as early Indian and Greek history, but the modern incarnation of vermouth is most associated with Turin in northern Italy.

In the late 19th century it became popular with bartenders as a key ingredient for cocktails, such as the martini, the Manhattan, the Rob Roy and the Negroni.

The etymology of the name is wermut, the German for the Wormwood tree and a base flavouring. Vermouth is part of a larger family of bitter tonic drinks originally believed to have medicinal properties, such as tonic water, bitters and colas

Barbadillo's Atamán Vermut first originated in the 1940s and was made using a Manzanilla sherry base, infused with a herbs and botanicals such as Quassia tree bark (a kind of cinnamon), rosemary, Seville bitter orange peel and elderberries.

It proved hugely popular but a later decline in interest forced Barbadillo to close their doors on the project in the 1960s, leaving a significant amount of vermouth ageing undisturbed in old oak butts and demi johns in their cellars.

The closure notwithstanding, Barbadillo's bodega workers would quietly tend to the well-being of these stocks and as a result the company now has at its disposal an amazing 50-year-old vermouth still in excellent condition.

Through analysis of the original Vermut, as well as consulting with retired workers, Barbadillo formulated a new recipe to approximate the same flavour profile as the original. For increased authenticity, a small portion of the incredibly concentrated, 50-year-old original vermouth is also blended into the mix, giving it depth and character.

Only small batches of 1500 bottles are released at a time, with the original logo and brand on the bottle. The name, however, remains something a mystery; it means Cossack chief but what prompted Manuel Barbadillo to use this is unknown.

Barbadillo Atamán Vermut, (£19.99, Amazon, Horsham Cellar, Wadebridge Wines, Harrogate Fine Wines, Cozzi and Boffa)  aromatic and herbal with bold, complex bitter botanicals and roasted spices; initially bittersweet, it finishes dry; very long, savoury and multi-layered.

Very Good.

Sip neat as an aperitif in cooler months; in summer, served chilled over ice with a slice of orange, or with a mixer such as dry tonic. Also as a backbone to cocktails such as a Negroni or a Manhattan.

If serving with food, match the spiced bitter-sweetness to creamy chicken in spiced tarragon sauce or ham with cloves and an orange-marmalade glaze.

World Vermouth Day is on 21st March 2020. 

Other food and cocktail suggestions:

Erik Burgess suggests using it in a Boulevardier.

Mark Poynton of MJP@TheShepherds suggests flat white fish, gently poached with a cucumber and fennel salad and some white grapes into a cream sauce with a splash of the vermut.

Friday, 5 March 2021

Vergelegen Cabernet Merlot - The Co-op

A sophisticated South African Bordeaux-blend from The Co-op

Vergelegen Cabernet Merlot Fairtrade 2018

South Africa has the planet's oldest soils and does not have a problem with ripeness; if anything, the challenge is more with maintaining freshness.

Vergelegen is the Dutch for "remotely situated"; it is an historic wine estate in the Western Cape province of South Africa, just outside Cape Town. Based in Stellenbosch, overlooking False Bay, the this proximity to the ocean provides a coolness that gives a more European feel to the wines.

Exclusive to Co-op, this red is the second Fairtrade wine from the award-winning South African winery and a result of a collaboration between wine buyer, Ed Robinson and Vergelegen. 

Vergelegen History

Vergelegen has a long but on-off history of winemaking.

The estate was first settled in 1700 by an early Governor of the Cape, Willem Adriaan van der Stel, who improved the estate but lost a large portion of it when the locals complained about his unrelated illegal activities. In 1798 the estate was sold to the Theunissen family, who planted extensive vineyards and concentrated on the production of grapes until phylloxera struck in the late nineteenth century, wiping out most of the grape production.

In 1917 Vergelegen was purchased by the millionaire mine magnate Sir Lionel Phillips as a present for his wife who removed the few remaining acres dedicated to grapes.

It was not until 1992 that the first contemporary vintage was harvested; yet within ten years the estate was recognised as producing some of South Africa's finest wines.

Vergelegen Cabernet Merlot Fairtrade 2018, (£9, The Co-op)

Complex oaky nose with ripe berry fruits, spice and earthy-mintiness; plush, supple and fresh with ripe berries, juicy black cherries, coffee grounds, pencil shavings, eucalyptus and toasty oak; full and substantial with very fine but persistent tannins.

Good and Good Value; drinks nicely on pouring straight from the bottle but will also age.

Match with peppered roast meats such as beef or chicken; or lay down for a few years and match with duck or venison.