Thursday, 28 April 2016
A tale of two Waitrose Chiantis
It’s a typically baffling supermarket juxatposition. Two Chiantis on a Waitrose shelf, with only £1 but an entire presentational world between them.
Chianti used to be a very popular, even sophisticated wine. Even though it’s hard to find in those straw flasks any more, that particular blow to sales for the DIY tablelamp industry has been resolved, by the ingenuity and bad taste of those who decided that a bottle itself would suffice.
But Chianti is no longer an indication of la dolce vita. As Oz Clarke complained, “Chianti has slid so far down the price ladder in recent years that the best one could say of it is that it is cheap and cheerful”.
So on the left is a £5.99 Waitrose version. It is indeed cheap. Let’s see whether it leaves us cheerful.
Note the bold, idiot-proof declaration, Chianti, in stand-out red. The faux-stamped vintage. The screw-cap. And the label copy, which reads: A region whose boundaries were once contested on horseback.
Why would you make this pointless statement? In what way is this intended to aid your choice, to assist your purchasing decision, of a bottle of wine?
(And indeed, given the historic ubiquity of mounted forces, is there a region on earth which was not once contested on horseback?)
Product of Italy, it declares in red script. Product of Italy, it declares again in a faux stamp. But the thing in which the middle class will put most faith means more than all the guarantees, paper seals, DOCG numbers and Ministry of Agriculture logos with which Italy festoons their bottles. It’s the word at the bottom of the label – Waitrose.
Next to it on the shelf, for just £1 more, is the Poggio Castagno Chianti Classico. Yes, a Classico, with all the additional constraints that places upon it. It has been reduced, from a relatively whopping £10.79 to £6.99. And what you see appears to be a much more traditional product, from the label’s script and serif typefaces, to the delicate depiction of the vineyard, to the use of a cork. The red on the label is a little darker and less shouty. And the bottle itself is even a fraction larger, as if it stands a little prouder. This is a bottle which could appear on my dining table, especially given that the word Waitrose does not.
(For every customer reassured by the presence of that word, there is another embarrassed by it. Like Boden.)
Hidden in the small print is the fact that actually, this is a Piccini chianti. Said to be reponsible for 15% of all chianti production, various Piccini chiantis are also on the shelves at Sainsbury, Tesco, Morrison’s et al. But this one is “born from the passion, the love and experience of Piccini Family (sic)”. So it’s not as if they just produced it.
“Sangiovese,” they enthuse, “is the soul of this Chianti Classico…”, glossing over the fact that, by law, sangiovese is the soul of every Chianti Classico.
Creeping like snail unwillingly, it’s time to drink them. And the Waitrose Chianti is a shallow affair, harshly green around the gills, and lacking any depth or complexity. But the Poggio Castagno is, in a way, more disappointing, because its presentation – to say nothing of its £10.79 original price tag – leads me to expect something significantly better. And it’s only a marginal improvement, losing that clench around the edges and gaining in resonance, but still not a rich or complex wine. Possibly £1 better, yes, but certainly not the 80% improvement its original price might suggest.
So no, I am not cheerful. Except that perhaps I have found the evidence for a brilliant line from an Elizabeth McCracken short story.
This is “Wine for people who either don’t drink wine, or drink too much of it.”