Wednesday 31 August 2011

Judging by appearances – Lafite Rothschild & Los Vascos Grande Reserve

“Only a fool,” said Oscar Wilde, “would not judge by appearances.” Am I right to apply this edict to my wine?

And why not? Who are these fools who say “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? Probably those who then go and buy Harry Potter books with an adult jacket, so that no-one will judge them.

Why do you think that all the books by, say, Dan Brown have essentially the same cover design? The correct answer is not, appropriate as it might be, to illustrate a paucity of creative talent; but to suggest that a customer will be getting more of the same. Have one bestseller, and an author’s entire back catalogue will often be redesigned to echo the cover which everyone knows – just look at David Nicholls’ books now. 

I have always judged by appearances. I remember being introduced to an office newcomer once; my expression must have given me away, because my then boss immediately added, “I’m sure he’ll be wearing a tie when he starts with us.”

“I’m more concerned,” I replied, “About whether he’ll be wearing socks.”

So when people tell me that wine labels don’t matter, it’s what’s inside that the bottle that counts… well.

Can we name any other commercial product where people are advised to ignore its appearance? There are entire agencies out there toiling to create product packaging, wielding terms like “personality”, “brand promise”, “visual platform”and “hierarchy of product communication”, in order to achieve “shelf impact” – and someone’s telling me to ignore it?

No, I am more than happy to admit that the reason I was first drawn to the wine of Los Vascos was its appearance. You only need to look at its label to get a suggestion of its family connection:

And there on the capsule is the Rothschild logo, the five arrows symbolising the five sons of original patriarch Mayer Rothschild, and the magical word, Lafite.

Los Vascos is a Chilean winery, which is indeed run by Lafite Rothschild. Back in the early Nineties, their cabernet sauvignon was something of a rarity in the UK; it cost about £12 a bottle, and the only place you could be sure of buying it was the shop at the Rothschild-owned Waddesdon Manor. I used to buy it as a competent wine which was also a rarity and a talking point. Now they’re producing 300,000 cases a year of their basic cabernet sauvignon, and you can get it in Majestic for £7.99

But this week I picked up a bottle of their Grande Reserve – notice the French title on a Chilean wine – which is a blend of cabernet sauvignon with malbec, syrah and carmenere. I see online that you can get cases for a little over a tenner a bottle, but I was foolish enough to pick it up in my local wine merchant with an ampersand, so it cost me £12.95.

A cynic might suggest that the Rothschilds are simply cashing in on the appeal of Lafite by aping its iconography. But, look at it the other way – would they damage the value of their leading wines by visual association with something that was rubbish?

Their website recommends decanting the wine, which I do. I am not shallow enough to leave the capsule beside the decanter (hem, hem).

And do you know what? It’s gorgeous. It has a musky, tobacco bouquet, and it glides across the palate in that way good cabernet sauvignon does – but then there’s a resonance from the other grapes in the blend, a richness, and a long, dry aftertaste. This is a complex, graceful wine, a beautifully balanced cruiserweight, steelier than a Bordeaux blend but just as clever.

No, of course it’s not Lafite, but it’s good and it’s good value. Not even CJ would expect to get one of the finest wines available to humanity for £12.95.

(Well, actually, he probably would, but we’ll let that pass…)

Whether a label design shrieks of energy or murmurs of elegance really should be an indication of its style – and the appearance of Los Vascos Grande Reserve, with all its suggestion of finesse and class, is entirely appropriate. And you can bring two key elements to your dining table in a single bottle; you not only get a good bottle of wine, but the Lafite Rothschild background provides you with a good conversation as well.

For man looketh on the outward appearance (I Samuel 16.7), and in this case he is right to do so.



  1. Hi there!

    The bottle of Los Vascos you've reviewd, what vintage was it from?

    I have a bottle of the Grande Reserve from 2008. Should I keep it in the cellar a couple of years more? Or is it good already?

    Thank you!

    1. This was from 2007 but, of course, written over a year ago.

      I would say drink it now. It should be good...

  2. In the scheme of things socks don't really matter.

    1. Pah! Who can say that the art of conversation is dead, when a man can still make a point with the colour of his socks?


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