The English are among the few people who will actually mock someone’s learning. Too clever for his own good. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Know-it-all. Too clever by half.
By embracing a dismissal of all matters vinous beyond price and taste, CJ shrewdly avoids this mockery. I, despite my broad erudition, only plead guilty to a little knowledge of wine myself. How dangerous a thing can that little knowledge possibly be? Well…
You may recall (or, with the wonders of the internet, may now look back upon) my somewhat futile attempt to follow one wine writer’s advice and “befriend a local wine merchant”. My chosen local merchant was an Oddbins – shortly afterwards, the chain went into administration.
My attempts at striking up friendships have often been rebuffed – there are playgrounds, student bars and even people’s dining rooms to which I can never return – and many is the shop where assistants now disappear into the back room muttering “It’s that bloody man again…”. But closing an entire retail chain to avoid me is a little extreme.
However, my local Oddbins remained, to some shabby extent, open. A scrappy handwritten note appeared in the window, explaining that it was now being run by EFB/Whittalls. (In fact this is European Food Brokers, which operates Whittalls, which is trading as Oddbins. A search throws up locations like Halifax, Walsall and Dorking. Hmmm.)
But for weeks and weeks now, it has offered only rubbish wines. I mean real bottom shelf, corner grocer stuff, like Marques de Caceres, Yellowtail, even Blossom Hill – I ask you, Blossom Hill? What is this, a convenience store? Walsall? A Spar?
The shelves have been sparsely stocked, and the simple, bare wood interior of Oddbins, which once presented a charming, rustic simplicity, has had an air of downtown Mogadishu.
Then this week, they put a board outside proudly announcing, “The tide is turning” – and amongst the rubbish, I saw this Mâcon-Lugny in the window, and I thought yes, at last. There, my little learning told me, is a white Burgundy, a wine that could grace my dining table.
And £9 is a good price for a white Burgundy. Perhaps, I thought, this might be a signal to people like myself. Oddbins could be offering good wine again. Or, it’s a bin-end from the old Oddbins, a quality wine being shifted at a bargain price to ease their cashflow, and which passers-by may not notice.
But, given my little knowledge, was I being “too clever by half”?
The wines of the Mâconnais, says my old Sotheby’s guide to classic wines, are “broad, solid structured… with a harmonious balance between lemony fruit and sinewy virtuosity”, an astonishing turn of phrase from David Molyneux-Berry which is as hard to comprehend as it is to pronounce.
What does Oddbins say? I can do no better than show you the back label:
Now, why reduce something to its lowest common denominator? Yes, it is chardonnay; but if you’re selling a Rolls-Royce, you don’t describe it as a car.
As someone may have said, as 183 fighter planes appeared over the horizon of Pearl Harbor, this does not bode well.
If there’s one adjective everyone uses about good white Burgundy (and indeed Chardonnay) it’s “buttery”. Sadly, this wine is more like those low fat alternatives, which nobody tells you are also low flavour.
An initially fresh, grapefruity bouquet simply evaporates from the glass within minutes, disappearing like cars from a traffic warden. And similarly with the flavour; any richness you might detect in an initial sip (beware the in-store tasting!) is long gone before the second glass. No “sinewy virtuosity” here, and as far as fruit is concerned, there’s just a thin flavour of lemon fruitgums, with a clenching aftertaste. In fact, served with food, people might not even notice it; or, if you put a slice of lemon in the jug, they could confuse it with their water.
(Incidentally, whoever wrote that back label – it has neither a good depth of flavour, nor a concentration of fruit. It is, however, arguably, dry. Frankly, I’m beginning to wish I was.)
Now look. I’m really rather copped off about this. I’m sitting here with a £9 bottle of wine, which is about twice what CJ pays, and God knows he moans enough about the rubbish he has to put up with.
If somewhere is selling classic wines, it is going to start attracting people like me, rather than corner-shop customers who are simply trying to obliterate the preceding day for a fiver. I’ve been lured in, by a classic French appellation, and a little knowledge.
I don’t want a load of comments about how it’s hard to turn the business around, get new stock, etc etc. Because this place is open, and it’s selling stuff to customers, and if the owners don’t feel the stuff on their shelves is representative of their operation and their brand, then they should close until it is.
Or perhaps this is what they drink in Walsall…