Thursday, 31 August 2017

Spot the difference?

A fish supper in the offing, and 25% off six bottles at Sainsbury’s – game on! So I check the Guardian’s incomparable Fiona Beckett, who recommends the “lusciously creamy” McGuigan Founder’s Series Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2015. “Snap it up if you ever see it on promotion,” she says.   So I make it snappy.

McGuigan, eh? CJ territory. He once inflicted upon me some eye-watering McGuigan Shiraz, for which they must have interpreted from their namesake boxer the term 'pugilistic'. So I am perhaps understandably cautious. 


But I trust the magnificent Ms Beckett completely, and approach the hitherto neglected display of their wines. And I experience the wariness of a traveller presented with a foreign currency, whose banknotes all seem to look the same.

Her recommendation sits proudly on the top shelf. With a unique bottle and distinctive label, it stands out. And of course, she is spot on; it turns out to be a rich, creamy Chardonnay, a smooth and tasty Bridget Jones comfort blanket.

But what astonishes me is the array of barely distinguishable McGuigan Chardonnays on the shelves below.

There was their Estate at £4.95; their Classic at £5.50; and their Reserve at £6. Their Founder’s was on promotion indeed at £9 (reduced from £11); and then there was their Shortlist at £14. That’s five Chardonnays, with a £9 difference in price per bottle, or 260%, between bottom and top.

Now, I’m old enough to remember when European wines were considered “difficult”, when people thought it was hard to grasp the difference between Burgundy and Bordeaux, let alone their various classifications. So forgive me if I’m somewhat baffled by things at this lower, New World end of the market; but there, I thought, matters were supposed to be more straightforward.

These McGuigan brands, to me, are meaningless. Bin, Classic, Reserve, Estate, Release, Private; they are all just interchangeable terms used to suggest quality in wine. None sounds inherently superior to another. You could equally well combine them; Classic Release; Reserve Bin; Classic Reserve; Private Bin. Oh, they’ve actually used that one.

And the labels are as neutral as their names, just a kaleidoscope of parts. If there’s some hierarchy of white over silver or vice versa, it’s lost on me. Does a lion suggest better quality than a signature? What about half a lion, like a misplaced wax seal? Or a silver lion? Or a lion’s signature?

No, the only guidance discernible to me is one of price. This one must be “better” (whatever that means) because it costs 50p more. Like the famous Class sketch,  it looks down on one, but up to another. It sits on a higher shelf.

Now, if you go to Volkswagen, it’s pretty clear why a Golf is more expensive than a Polo. And in case you can’t see the difference, there are specifications to explain why one costs more than the other. So I turn for similar guidance to the UK website  where McGuigan list details of 66 – count ‘em, 66! – wines, including 10 pure Chardonnays alone.

The Founder’s Series, I discover, is “a celebration of the four generations of the McGuigan family, who have made wine their life… the pursuit of producing quality wine… this spirit and commitment to sourcing quality fruit”.

Similar, then, to the Signature brand, of which it says: “The McGuigan family has been making great quality Australian wine for generations, sourcing premium fruit from Australia’s best wine regions. The Signature range is a reflection of this history and commitment to creating wines of great quality and style”

While the Family Release, the clue perhaps being in the name, identifies itself with “The McGuigan Family love affair with wine [which] has passed through the generations and continues today with chief winemaker, Neil McGuigan. Family Release stands as Neil’s recognition of the McGuigans that came before him.”

Credit to one’s forefathers and all that, but that’s quite a lot of indistinguishable celebration, recognition and reflection of effectively the same thing.

And what about taste?

You might, for example, want to choose between the Bin Chardonnay, and the Signature Chardonnay. Best of luck with that. The Bin “is a fresh and crisp Chardonnay with flavours of white peach and ripe nectarine. It has a nice fresh finish and lingers on the palate.” Whereas the Signature “is a fresh and vibrant Chardonnay with flavours of white peach and ripe nectarine. It has a nice crisp finish and lingers on the palate.“

Or you might be weighing up the Classic against the Family Release.  The Classic: “This fresh and fruity Chardonnay has intense stone fruit and citrus character, complimented by subtle oak and a crisp finish.”. Against the Family Release: “This fresh and fruity Chardonnay has intense stone fruit and citrus character, complimented by a subtle oak and a crisp finish.” Don’t even try – the descriptions are, in fact, identical.

So how do you choose which one you want? Not by interchangeable name or undifferentiated label, by indistinguishable heritage, by similar or indeed identical tasting notes.

Presumably, you decide by price, the one clearly differentiating factor. And trust that the wine improves in corresponding increments of 50p a bottle.

Never was that old saying more appropriate – you pays your money, and you takes your choice. Of shelves.

PK 




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